Midnight. Downtown New York, SOB’s nightclub. Packed crowd. High energy. Flowing drinks.
An unlikely-looking group of performers emerge from the downstairs dressing room onto the club floor. Escorted by bouncers, they head towards the stage. The guys wear paghs (turbans) and lunghis (similar to skirts). The girls sport salwars (Aladdin-style pants) and dupattas (head scarves).
Eight Yale Jashan Bhangra dancers are weaving their way in and out of a mob of late night New York partygoers. One man grabs my arm and shouts something in Punjabi into my ears. I fail to understand, but by the expression on his face, I can tell he’s excited. He pats my back a little too hard as I pass him. We arrive on the stage and take our positions. The stage is set. This is Basement Bhangra.
Bhangra is a type of dance that originates in the North Indian region of Punjab. It began as a folk dance to celebrate the coming of the harvest season. In recent years, with major migrations of Punjabis to the UK and North America, the dance form and its music have become popular, mixing with many different elements. The music itself is heavily mixed and remixed with hip-hop and techno beats. The dance has even evolved into more modern forms, especially in North America, where traditional moves are reinvented and mixed in with hip-hop, and routines incorporate creative formations and crowd pleasing stunts. In Canada and North America, predominantly on the coasts, fierce competitions are held to claim Bhangra mastery. While still underground, Bhangra is slowly breaking into the mainstream. Basement Bhangra is a movement that testifies to the culture’s success.
Basement Bhangra was started by DJ Rekha over 14 years ago. The MC started DJ-ing monthly at SOB’s nightclub in New York, showcasing a traditional and modern blend of bhangra music. Since its inception, the movement has become increasingly popular, and DJ Rekha has performed at various clubs across New England, to critical and commercial success.
During our night at Basment Bhangra, we saw many newbies attend the free nine o’clock bhangra dance lesson to learn some of the basic moves. And we met some veterans who had been dancing for years in local, independent bhangra teams across New York. One man we met had arrived only ten days earlier from Ludhiana, the largest city in Punjab. He instantly befriended us and was thrilled to hear that we were performing later in the night in full traditional “varidiyaan” (uniforms). The Basement Bhangra movement really typifies bhangra’s ability to unify people from all walks of life.
DJ Rekha announces our name to the crowd. Yale Jashan Bhangra is ready.
The music kicks in, our bhangra faces switch on (a combination of smiling and veiled nervous, excited faces) and we start dancing to the packed crowd before us. It is a performance unlike any other. There is a live video of our dancing projected on the wall behind us, morphed with an array of changing colors and textures. And the crowd isn’t just staring at us. They’re dancing in their spots as we move across the stage.
After just two minutes of the intense routine, I think that I might not make it through this one. My initial adrenaline rush has sapped most of my energy. But it does not matter. The crowd is cheering their lungs out, and there are about five men near the front of the stage who are dancing even harder than I am. I make eye contact with some of my teammates. They look tired and are gasping for breath. But it does not matter. We ride on the energy around us and bust out a seven-minute routine. It’s an amazing performance. Right when we finish and touch the stage in respect, one of the men near the front of the stage ushers me over. I bend down and before I can comprehend what he is saying to me, he picks me up by the knees and pulls me into the crowd. I feel like a rock star. Someone else picks up another one of my teammates and we both wave our fists in the air. What a performance! And all in a downtown club in New York city. Who would have thought?
Ashish Sharma is a senior in Branford College and the captain of Yale Jashan Bhangra.