London: The second last time Raghini Rajaram danced on stage in front of an audience was at her alma mater back in India. “It was 2003 during some college function at BITS, Pilani,” she recalls. Nothing more than the usual college-time song and dance gig, she says.
The next time she danced in front of an audience, she was part of a crew of thousands. There was an audience of more than 80,000 watching live, and over a billion people watching her on TV.
Dancing star: Raghini Rajaram with Danny Boyle.
Last Friday evening, Rajaram was one of Danny Boyle’s dancing nurses during the much-talked-about National Health Service (NHS) segment of the Olympics opening ceremony. Five days later, Rajaram was still on a tremendous high. “I will never forget that night. It was just so amazing to be a part of.”
Rajaram’s tryst with glory began last year when the organizers of the four main ceremonies—opening and closing for both the Olympics and Paralympics—put out a call for volunteers. Rajaram, who at the time was putting in gruelling hours at a city bank, logged on to the London 2012 website and signed up.
At the time, the organizers were extremely tight-lipped, she says. “You didn’t know which ceremony you were auditioning for. You had no idea what roles or functions they wanted you to do.” Rajaram reckons that they were looking for people who could move in group formations, and quickly move from point to point on a giant grid: from square A5 to B3 and back to A5.
One more set of auditions followed before she got her confirmation emails. Some paperwork followed. (Any resident of the UK could sign up as a performer provided they had visa status valid till the end of the Games. The volunteers were unpaid—they had to sign papers to waive off wages.) It was also in this email, sent out in April, that Rajaram and others realized the magnitude of what they were getting into. “They told us we would be required to put in between 250 to 300 hours of work in the next three months. People who couldn’t commit were asked not to sign up.”
By then, Rajaram had already quit her banking job and moved to a new one with better hours and flexible timings. “My new employers didn’t care as long as I got things done on time.”
There were volunteers who came from Belfast and other far-flung cities to be a part of the training. Volunteers who signed up were expected to work on the weekends but also weekday evenings after work, and often, till 11.00pm.
Rajaram says she walked into a training environment that had been meticulously planned. Choreographers and “dance captains” already knew exactly who would do what and when. Now it was a matter of getting people to stick to that sequence over and over again.
Rajaram’s team was initially just called NHS. It also included nurses and doctors from the NHS. One of the members of Rajaram’s eight-woman “bed team” was a speech and language therapist. Over time, the dancing nurses began to call themselves SOS: the Swing Out Sisters. This was what they called themselves right up to that night in the Olympic Stadium when they created history.
Boyle, Rajaram says, was a frequent presence at training sessions and rehearsals. He mingled with the volunteers, often telling them why they were doing what they were. The night before the opening ceremony, he spent five hours at the stadium shaking hands and thanking every member of the ceremony crew.
Also, Rajaram admits a tad sheepishly, she got to keep her nurse uniform. Did she spot the infamous “Madhura Honey”? Rajaram chuckles nervously. She saw the Indian team as they prepared to enter the stadium. But she has no memory of seeing the mystery woman in red.
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