How India’s song-and-dance movie industry has hooked American college kids
By Gina McGalliard
If you’ve seen the movie Slumdog Millionaire, you’ve seen Bollywood, a popular form of song-and-dance that originated in India—but hasn’t stayed there. In the United States, Bollywood dance has a devoted and enthusiastic following, and the best of the best can be seen at the Bollywood America Filmi-Fusion Dance Championships.
Bollywood America is for dancers at the top of their game: teams are invited only if they have placed first in a previous national collegiate competition. Ten groups of dancers took the stage during the second annual championships on April 23, 2011, competing for the title of best collegiate Bollywood team nationwide.
The competition, held at San Diego’s Copley Symphony Hall, was part of a three-day festival that also included a dance workshop, fashion show, and comedy show, all celebrating the South Asian culture that has become increasingly popular since the 2008 release of Slumdog Millionaire.
What is Bollywood dance?
“Bollywood is the dance style that’s out of the Indian film industry,” says former collegiate competitor and Bollywood America judge Shivani Thakkar, whose credits include Step Up 3D and multiple Bollywood films in India. “Most Indian dance films follow the style of American musical theater—they have five or six song-and-dance numbers in each movie. The songs become really popular, and lots of times in India the music videos of the songs are released even before the film is released, to attract audiences. The dance style is based on Indian folk dance, Indian classical dance, and a strong influence of Western dance, both North and South American.”
The word “Bollywood” is a composite of “Hollywood” and “Bombay,” (now called Mumbai), the center of the Indian film industry. The form is a hybrid too, of indigenous dances of India, such as raas and bhangra (a Punjabi folk dance), and classical Indian dance. Bollywood is probably not a dance form for purists: it frequently borrows from Western genres such as salsa, jazz, samba, and tango. Characteristics of Bollywood dance include quick, percussive moves and footwork, turned-out and bent legs with flexed feet, and bouncing in time to recorded up-tempo music.
Although Bollywood is not codified the way Indian classical dances are, what the dance forms have in common is narrative. “Its root is definitely storytelling, but the good thing about Bollywood is that it’s not a genre,” says Rishi Jaiswal, one of Bollywood America’s judges. “So you can take from hip-hop, jazz, salsa, Indian classical—the mistake people tend to make is they think it’s Indian classical where it needs to be defined.”
“[Bollywood is] like a musical, an old-fashioned musical,” says competition judge Niraj Mehta, a former collegiate Bollywood dancer. Now a radiation and oncology resident, he still dances Bollywood professionally. “It’s nothing unfamiliar to the American culture.”
A spectator at Bollywood America would also likely notice a stark difference from most Western dance forms: the high number of male dancers. Unlike in the West, in India boys are not discouraged from dancing. “It’s very common for boys and men to be in the Bollywood scene,” says teacher Varun Gurunath. “There are a lot of all-male teams. You see more all-male teams than all-girl teams.”
Onto the world stage
The immense popularity of Slumdog Millionaire did for Bollywood dance what Riverdance did for Irish step dancing, bringing a previously little-known dance form to mass audiences. It has also made several appearances on the hit Fox TV show So You Think You Can Dance.
“Bollywood is starting to enter the mainstream in such a public fashion, [and] a lot of mainstream people know what the term refers to, know what the dance style is about,” says Thakkar. “They have a visual concept and picture and relate it to Indian culture and Indian rhythms and beat. I know when I started dancing professionally in 2005 or 2006, a lot of times people would confuse belly dancing with Bollywood. I don’t find that anymore. I find that people have a very distinct idea of what Bollywood is, and because of that [they] are ready to embrace it.”
Bollywood is probably not a dance form for purists: it frequently borrows from Western genres such as salsa, jazz, samba, and tango.
As a result, many non-Indians have become interested in Bollywood. Although most competitors at this year’s Bollywood America were Indian, many other nationalities were represented as well.
That means Bollywood has the potential to spread. “I think right now its movement has only begun,” says sponsorship chair Mitesh Solanki. “It’s not as widespread as it can be yet.”
Although the United States is home to many Bollywood competitions, Bollywood America was designed to have the best of the best battle it out. “There was never a competition that was created for all the first-place winners of these different competitions to come together and showcase and [for there] to be one final winner,” says Solanki. “So we wanted to allow for that one last competition, to show who truly is the best.”
Participants hailed from all over the United States, including the University of California–Berkeley, Boston University, UCLA, Penn State, Georgia Tech, and the University of California–San Diego. Performances, which typically lasted slightly longer than 10 minutes, began with an introductory video to give the context of the team’s plotline, and dialogue and pantomime often interrupted the dancing and music. As in musical theater, dancers were cast in leading and chorus roles, and performances often had multiple costume and set changes and lighting cues. Teams typically had 15 to 20 members.
At the end of the evening the title of 1st Overall—which included trophies as well as a bowl full of mangos—was awarded to team UC Berkeley Azaad. Their dance’s story followed a Bollywood background dancer named Nikhil, who has fallen for the famous and egotistical movie star Naina.
Prior to the competition, Bollywood America produced a dance workshop at San Diego’s Studio FX. One of the workshop’s teachers and choreographers was Gurunath, who started out as a hip-hop dancer and popper. When he met Nakul Dev Mahajan, the Bollywood choreographer for So You Think You Can Dance and America’s Best Dance Crew, he was asked to audition for Mahajan’s company.
“After auditioning I got infused into Bollywood, and he’s been training me ever since,” says Gurunath. “I learned all the ins and outs of becoming a Bollywood dancer, an instructor, [and] now I’m an assistant choreographer. He told me to use my style of hip-hop and blend it into the style he was teaching.” Gurunath has made appearances on NBC’s The Office and the 2010 show Superstars of Dance.
“The workshop [was] for the community,” says Gurunath, who taught a hip-hop-infused Bollywood dance for the event; two other choreographers taught a traditional style and a contemporary-infused style. “Bollywood America is all about community outreach.”
Forty people showed up, ranging in age from 9 to mid-40s. “I was very impressed with most of the kids because they were able to pick up the choreography well,” says Gurunath. “It was a great experience. They had fun, and that’s all it was meant for. It was meant to be fun, meant to educate, and meant to make people want to dance more. So essentially the workshop was a great success.”
If the popularity of Bollywood dance continues to grow, this could be only the beginning for Bollywood America. “Keep a lookout for it next year,” says Gurunath, adding that the organization hopes to expand its workshops at this year’s competition, which will be held in Philadelphia on April 21. “Tell people to look out for Bollywood America 2012—it’s going to be even bigger and better.”