For many first-generation Americans, living in one culture while holding on to another can be tough. For many young Indian Americans, dance — especially Bhangra — has become a vehicle for assimilation within college campuses and around the nation.
Bhangra is a traditional dance, originating from Punjab, India, performed to celebrate almost anything from a good harvest to marriage. It is characterized by infectious energy, bright and colorful outfits, elaborate turbans — and it also can be quite the workout.
No longer is Bhangra just “screwing the light bulb” to Beware of the Boys (Panjabi MC’s collaboration with Jay-Z). Lately, it has received plenty of exposure through performances at the London Olympics and a category on an episode of Dancing with the Stars.
Similar to NCAA sports like basketball and football, universities throughout Punjab have actively participated in Bhangra competitions for years. This very tradition has been transported all over the world, especially the United States, becoming a growing fixture of international culture in universities throughout America with major collegiate competitions such as Bhangra Blowout in Washington, D.C.
Founded in 1993 by the George Washington University’s South Asian Society as a very small event in the university’s cafeteria, Bhangra Blowout is now held in the prestigious Warner Theatre in downtown D.C. and has embodied the growth and popularity of Bhangra in America.
Naina Ramrakhani, co-director of Bhangra Blowout 20, which took place April 13 this year, said she believes these events bring out the best of the collegiate Bhangra circuit.
“As a collegiate competition, Bhangra Blowout gives college teams the chance to really showcase their talents and pride themselves on their work,” she said. “From the moment I was involved last year, I was drawn to the energy that goes into the show and gained so much respect for this competition, and (it) really sets the standard for other similar shows taking place throughout the year.”
University of Virginia won first place at this year’s competition, with Carnegie Melon University and the University of Miami taking second and third, respectively.
But the scene isn’t big only on the East Coast — teams and competitions have been sprouting up all over the country.
“There are several events that highlight this dance form and new shows are being started each year,” Ramrakhani said. “Bhangra is getting a lot of attention right now on the West Coast as well, with well-recognized shows and teams that are proving their place in the Bhangra circuit.”
Manreet Sandhu, captain of Cal Bhangra at University of California – Berkeley, agrees. Created in 2009, Cal Bhangra has performed in 16 competitions and has had many notable performances at events including Nachda Punjab at San Jose State University, Bruin Bhangra at University of California – Los Angeles and 2012′s Bhangra Blowout (where the team placed first).
“The West is definitely forming more collegiate teams right now, especially in SoCal,” Sandhu said. Many teams are becoming independent as well, with students from universities and community colleges who are united through Bhangra but want to compete without the designation of a university, according to Sandhu.
For Sandhu, the collegiate Bhangra scene is more than just a dance or competitive club — it has created friendships and camaraderie while connecting students around the nation.
“Apart from the excitement of traveling and dancing on stage, I really enjoy being able to meet students from other collegiate teams,” Sandhu said. “I also really enjoy coming to practices and having fun with the members on my own team. Although competing can sometimes be stressful while trying to balance practices with school, I admire our team’s focus when it comes time to getting things done.”
Nidhi Singh, captain of University of North Carolina’s Bhangra Elite, founded in 1996, echoes Sandhu’s sentiments.
“I really enjoy the family that comes with being on a collegiate team. … I get to spend a bunch of time with people who share the same passion for dance that I do and that’s awesome. Meeting people from other teams is also a huge plus,” Singh said. “I’ve met so many people through the Bhangra circuit. It’s like a huge fraternity.”
It is hard to comprehend how large the North American Bhangra community is with teams across the U.S. and Canada, but in 2008 the Internet helped put its popularity in perspective. Saleem Malkana, founder of Bhangra Teams’ Forum and former captain of Cornell Bhangra, is on a mission to create a place for discussion on Bhangra.
“I started Bhangra Teams’ Forum in April 2008 to create a space for constructive discussion for the Bhangra community,” Malkana said. “I wanted to create a platform that the community could utilize and contribute to. People come on BTF every day to discuss upcoming competitions and competition reviews, and to find DJs’ latest Bhangra mixes and videos of teams’ performances.”
Malkana said BTF gets up to one million hits per month, and there has also been a major growth in non-desis, or non-Indians, becoming more involved and engaged with the circuit.
“People love seeing and participating in Bhangra, and I think based on that the collegiate Bhangra circuit will continue to grow,” Malkana said. “Cornell holds their annual exhibition, Pao Bhangra, that attracts about 2,500 people from the Ithaca community, and most of the attendees are non-desi. I’ve also met tons of non-Punjabis who are on Bhangra teams — these are people who love the dance and culture so much that they’ve joined in.”
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