The kinks and the kinky of Bhangra

Bhangra-ing it up.

Look like you’re having the time of your life.

Sway with the grace of a wheat stalk.

Dip it low. Oh, and don’t wear shoes.

No, I’m not giving you cheesy first-time sex advice. I’m telling you the secret to a successful bhangra dance.

As a bhangra virgin, I was deflowered Tuesday evening after attending a class hosted by the Yale Bhangra Society. Wandering to Temple Street at 6:45 in the evening, my head swirled with the day’s intellectual absurdities (i.e., a whole class in which the term “Indo-Pak-Afghan” was repeated far too often for comfort) and Election Day obnoxiousness. I just wanted to dance.

Though my characteristic grandpa-sweaters and lack of eyeliner skills may imply a nurtured indifference to looks, I am Cher à la Clueless at heart. Thus, I replaced performance anxiety with the eternal question: what do I wear to bhangra? After a cursory Wikipedia search ­— always the key to enlightenment — I despaired about my lack of ethnic Punjab wear. But my sartorial worries were soon put to rest when Kathryn Wright FES ’13, the instructor, walked in with Pittsburgh sweatpants and a matching shirt.

Don’t be fooled by the hard-to-spell Indian dance moves. As David Cruz ’14 explained to me before the lesson started, “What we do isn’t really traditional.” The type of bhangra the 17- or 18-member team performs was developed mostly by Indian immigrants in the UK and US.

When I asked Cruz if bhangra could be compared to Bollywood dancing — I’m a freshman from an unknown little hamlet in southeastern Michigan, so please excuse the cultural naiveté — he shook his head. “Bollywood is like the disco of Indian dancing.” If he declares Bollywood the disco, I, with my infinite understanding of Indian dance, declare bhangra to be India’s version of swing.

Wright’s class usually hosts 15 to 20 people, but, perhaps due to Election Day distractions, only five graduate students made it to class.

As we warmed up in front of Wright, my mind flashed back to the claustrophobia of freshman gym class and the horrors of the Cha Cha Slide. Much to my relief, she avoided any use of the word “funky” in favor of Hindu mumblings. First up: dhamaka. Kick the legs behind ­— gracefully, of course. Now propel arms forward, one at a time, “like an airplane,” Wright says. Now you’ve mastered the first basic move of bhangra.

Before the lesson, Cruz described the pace of bhangra: “It’s just filled with highs and lows, highs and lows — there are slow segments and fast segments.”

With that in mind, we soon did the jhoomer, a glorified bicycle kick in front of the body. Another one of bhangra’s elegant moves, jhoomer is also the slower part of bhangra, usually danced to love songs, a fact all the more amusing given that bhangra was traditionally a dance only for men.

Having covered six or seven basic moves, Wright dropped a beat (our soundtrack: Husan De Mare) and we began our fluid partner dance, jodiyaan, where the goal was to successfully mimic a stalk of wheat’s movement.

My favorite term to say, jandhu sangha, proved to be my dancing downfall. Rotating on one foot was just too much. As my jodiyaan partner, Cruz soon became the love of my life when he valiantly contained the urge to burst out laughing. As he bravely held his hand out to me, we began a terrifying swirl around each other, reminiscent of a sadly choreographed kung fu B-movie.

In 35 minutes, most (read: everyone except yours truly) mastered the intricacies of a two-minute routine, which in bhangra time might well be an hour. With a nod to bhangra’s roots as an improvisational dance form, we ended with freestyle. Word to the wise: no matter how easy your 5-foot-3-inch bhangra instructor makes freestyle look, it is actually downright intimidating.

With that, my bhangra education was complete. Wright ended the class on a tantalizing note: “Soon,” she said, “there will be sticks.”

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