Hip-Hopping To a Hindi Beat
Bhangra Dance Showcase Joins Cultures, Generations
By Sarah Kaufman
Anita Saleem's strict Pakistani parents forbid her to date, or even to talk to boys other than family-approved companions. But on this warm Saturday night, she and her friend Fareesa Khalil, both 18, lean against the railing on the steps of Constitution Hall, enjoying a mischievous taste of freedom. Their parents are inside at the Bhangra Blowout -- an annual competition among 12 colleges in bhangra dancing, a vigorous, acrobatic Indian folk art.
The wind whips Saleem's dark hair around her face. Her eyes are full of laughter. "I love the dancing -- the dancing's awesome," she says.
In recent years, fueled by the restless children of Indian immigrants in Britain, bhangra has morphed into a club phenomenon. Deejays have mixed its distinctive racing drumbeat with reggae, hip-hop and techno elements.
For Saleem and Khalil, the Bhangra Blowout is a chance for a rare night out. Something hip enough for them, and homey enough for their parents.
As reggae gave black youth a connection to their roots in the African diaspora, bhangra links young, Westernized South Asians with their native land. "It offers the opportunity to do something that's relevant to them in terms of tempo and keep their own traditions alive," says dance historian Sally Sommer, an associate professor at Duke University. "It bridges what's necessary for someone who's young. You keep your own traditions and you carve your own space."
The bhangra rage has spilled into sizable Indian communities around the country. George Washington University's Bhangra Blowout, now in its fifth year, came close to filling the 3,700-seat Constitution Hall. Inside the theater the atmosphere is pure camp. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is the first team to compete; their entrance is heralded by the wrestling cry of "Let's get ready to rrruuummmble!"
It's a rather inauspicious beginning -- the dancers are somewhat hesitant and out of sync. Still, the elements of the dance, which originated in the Punjab region of northern India and Pakistan -- are there: The bouncy hops from one leg to the other, as if there's hot sand underfoot. The arms, waving high overhead as if greeting far-off friends -- Hey, hey! We're over here! The shoulders, heaving and shrugging with heavy thrusts. The wrists, flicking and rolling, while glittering scarves hooked around the fingers snap and flutter.
The University of Maryland team -- last year's winner -- adds a little Las Vegas, with flashing colored lights and long sequined vests for the men, over the traditional wrap skirt. Two dancers beat on two-sided dhols, long drums slung from the neck. Then a syncopated reggae beat takes over. In the furious pace of the dance, one man's turban keeps slipping over his eyes, eventually unraveling completely and settling around his neck.
Cornell's team incorporates one of the harder techno beats; the women swish their hips fiercely. The University of Pennsylvania makes a strong impression with black and orange costumes. Clean and precise, they end with a pair of men handspringing across the stage.
Just before the first half ends, Penn Masala, "the only Hindi a cappella group in the country," performs popular Indian songs, breaking up the audience with spoofs. They're joined by a rap singer named Nimo. "Everyone knows South Asian is India and Pakistan," he announces. "But what about Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal? I wanna give out some love to them as well."
Backstage at intermission, emcee Darshana Lele is fidgeting nervously while her magnificent magenta and gold sari is being redraped by Shruti Date. "I'm not used to wearing one," Lele confesses, breathless from excitement. "She has like 500 pins in it," mutters Date around several safety pins clenched in her teeth. "Usually moms can carry it off without the pins."
In an offstage holding room, the dancers of the all-female University of North Carolina team -- last year's runner-up -- are practicing yoga to calm their nerves. Alexis Frankel is the lone Caucasian on the team. She was lured into bhangra, she says, by her Indian friends. "We're all very close and it's a big part of their culture, so it became a part of my culture." Besides, she says, "it's exhilarating."
The biggest challenge tonight, though, has been concentrating while her school was playing Utah in basketball. "We keep running to the security guard's office to watch it on TV."
The Georgetown University team -- the next to perform -- is going over its routine in the hallway, parrying long wooden sticks that hark back to the warrior strain of the Punjabi culture, from which bhangra sprang. Team member Brendan Varma says he learned to dance the bhangra only this year. "It brings us all together as South Asians," he says. "It unifies us and makes us proud of our heritage."
Out in the lobby, dancers who have already competed are mingling with friends. "I've pulled four or five all-nighters in a row," sputters Vikal Kapoor, 19, of the University of Maryland team. "I haven't eaten all day. But when you get onstage, your adrenaline is rushing." Why has he taken up bhangra? "Nothing is more sweet than victory," says the finance major.
Competitiveness, he says, is central to both the Indian culture and the art of bhangra. "Our parents engrave it in us when we're young, to do well in school, so when we get the opportunity to do it in dance we go for it."
The second half swings underway. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology follows Georgetown with a performance that's notable for its vigorous precision. They use traditional recorded music, with no remix, but that's not to say the dancing lacks attitude. The women sway like sea grass, then snap their hips with sass. Lines of dancers weave in and out. One man does a little breakdancing, spiraling on the floor on his fingertips and toes.
They are followed by UNC, the University of Michigan, Johns Hopkins and the University of Texas.
The Texans open up with a breakdancer in a sweat suit twisting himself up like a pretzel on the floor, whirling his legs overhead. As the all-male team marches onstage brandishing fluorescent orange sticks, the breakdancer scampers off in mock fear. Like many of the other teams, this one incorporates hip-hop and club-style dancing with the heaving shoulders and bobbing heads of traditional bhangra. One dancer stands on two others' shoulders and launches himself over the head of another dancer to land on the stage. The audience whistles, stomps and roars its approval.
"It's hard growing up in the States as first-generation Indians, with parents who are 100 percent Indian," says Texas team member Anirbhan Ghosh, 21, panting in the hallway after his performance. "It's hard to keep your culture alive unless you put forth the effort." His fellow dancers are mostly seniors, he says, making this performance "our last hurrah -- it'll be really hard not having these opportunities to dance."
Kiran Devisetty, executive chair of the Blowout, comes onstage to name the winners. He greets the audience with shouts of "Bhalle, bhalle!" (Punjabi for "hey, hey," one of the dancers helpfully explains) and announces that MIT is runner-up and the University of Texas is the winner. The two teams storm the stage with hoots and shouts, stamping their sticks and jumping into one another's arms. The Texans gallantly announce they're donating their check to GWU's Asian Women's Self-Help Association, a crisis center that benefited from the concert.
It was the mix of old and new that sealed it for them, says Navjot Singh, one of the three judges. "I liked their creativity, the way they mixed both the Indian style and the rap."
After the Blowout, the crowd moved on to a party, called a zindagi, at the Old Post Office Pavilion. It was slow to get rolling, but after an hour or so the dance floor swelled with young Indians swaying to the infectious bhangra remixes. The women had traded their traditional attire for tight pants and tummy-baring tops, or miniskirts and platform heels. There were many more men than women, though; clumps of turbaned heads congregated on the dance floor or at nearby tables.
Just about everyone was moving, shimmying, swaying -- the bhangra beat demands it. Down by the Indian Delight food stall, past a barrier of tables and chairs marking off the party zone, the roiling rhythms had even the maintenance workers shaking their hips.
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