March 31 was a Saturday night, and music and dancing were slowly creeping into the streets of Washington, D.C. But the loudest beats, the most energetic dancing, the infectious passion and the cheers from a crowd of over 4,000 emanated not from some popular clubs, but from Constitution Hall, the bastion of old America.
That night, the historical building hosted the Bhangra Blowout, the eighth annual national intercollegiate dance competition hosted by the South Asian Society of George Washington University. The competition is advertised as the largest South Asian student event in North America, with the top collegiate teams around the nation performing for the $2,500 cash prize and thousands of others gathering to watch.
During the competition, the drum beats of the traditional Indian instrument called dhol carved out this upbeat, modernized Indian music. Girls wearing colorful, traditional Indian costumes flew through the air, supported only by their ankles. The Bhangra group from the South Asian Society at Yale seized the stage as the last dancers in the performance, responding to a young, roaring crowd celebrating its South Asian-American identity.
The Yale team was one of 10 teams invited to the event after sending an audition tape in February of the dance routine choreographed by Davender Khera ’01 and Moushumi Sanghavi ’01. Yale has the smallest South Asian population of the competing schools; yet, for the second year in a row, it sent a diverse group of 15 dancers, two of whom were not of South Asian descent.
“The whole experience on stage was surreal,” Sanghavi said.
The group galvanized the crowd through its spectacular stunts, Sanghavi said, particularly the ending move in which the male dancers in the group executed a domino effect. They fell to the floor and then hooked their legs to the neck of the next person to create a wave with their bodies, imitating a caterpillar and a snake.
“The crowd was going absolutely crazy,” Sanghavi said. “When you go last, all your stunts are taken, so the crowd is not as excited, but we did the caterpillar and the snake right at the end and nobody had thought of doing them.”
According to Khera, the judging criteria are based on stunts, team spirit, costumes, choreography, and how closely the routine represents the traditional dance. The winning team, the University of Maryland, according to Vora and Sanghavi, constructed a pyramid with people balancing themselves on sticks. The New York Institute of Technology came in second place.
Bhangra dance originates in northern India and Pakistan, in a region called Punjab. It is a traditional folk music and dance that celebrates the harvest and farm life. The dance itself has characteristic elements of shoulder shrugging, stunts and heavy drum beats, according to Khera. It can involve singing as well as playing traditional instruments like the dhol.
The dance is popular in South Asia, but the energy has caught on in the South Asian communities of the United States and Great Britain. The music has fused with hip-hop, reggae and popular music, creating a new forum for mixing the traditional Indian with the modern Western.
“We even had a 20-second Michael Jackson segment in our routine,” said Manish Vora ’02, one of the dancers.
The dance also defines the South Asian-American experience with the recreation of the tradition within a new context.
“Bhangra dance has become a part of the lives of South Asian kids born and brought up in America,” said Sanghavi. But the beats are spreading beyond the South Asian ethnic circle.
“There are a lot of clubs in New York that play Bhangra music. I have also seen it in magazines like Cosmo as being the new, hip exercise,” Sanghavi said.
Participants agree that the seven minutes of their dance routine are like being on fire. Sanghavi, who is trained in a variety of Western dancing, believes Bhangra takes dancing to a whole new level of exercise. Vora recounts how some girls felt sick afterward from the excessive spinning and flying.
Even after the rush of performing for the national audience of 4,000, the Bhangra group is excited to perform at Yale for the closing act of Jhalak, the South Asian cultural show, which will take place April 13 and 14 in the Harkness Auditorium at the Medical School. For the event, the South Asian Society hopes to bring in elements from all parts of South Asia, with more dancing, singing, skits, a music ensemble with classical elements, and a fashion show.