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Dancing Between Cultures And Having A Great Time

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Editorial Review

Dancing Between Cultures And Having a Great Time

Tradition, Partying Mix for Bhangra Blowout

By S. Mitra Kalita

Washington Post Staff Writer

Monday, April 12, 2004

Amid flashing strobe lights and the squealing of teenagers, South Asian college students from across the country tried to take back their culture this weekend.

They carried water jugs and two-headed drums and wrapped their hair in turbans and their bodies in flailing silks. And they spun and shrugged their shoulders, dancing in a manner they expected their forefathers would have.

Thousands of college students arrived in the District to take part in George Washington University's 11th annual Bhangra Blowout, a dance competition and springtime rite for many who trace their roots to India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and other countries in South Asia. Revelers readily confess that they come just as much for the other festivities of the weekend, namely the parties at nightclubs throughout the city. In fact, event organizers liken Bhangra Blowout to Howard University's homecoming or Freaknik, a spring break for black college students in Atlanta.

But it wasn't always like this. Back when the contest started, it was a lot smaller -- and a lot more American.

Of course, most performers were already Americans, or at least American-born. And so they borrowed liberally from the pop culture they knew best and mixed break dancing and hip-hop moves with bhangra, a popular folk dance from their parents' homeland characterized by shoulder movements and twirling to the beat of the dhol, a two-headed drum. Beside saris and turbans, costumes occasionally included sequined tops, hooded sweat shirts and Spandex gear.

Along with the sudden mainstream popularity of bhangra, though, has come a debate over just how Americanized the dancers should allow themselves to be. Members of a new generation of performers say that fusing and mixing cultures has become less popular and that their goal is to dance as authentically and traditionally as possible.

"Last year, our song began with an Eminem remix," said Jasmine Singh, a junior at the University of Michigan, referring to the rapper. "This year, we're pretty traditional. We added creativity, but it's subtle."

Michigan's efforts paid off as its team garnered second place in the competition. Rutgers University, where South Asians constitute the largest ethnic minority on campus, took first place, and Columbia University placed third. The competition drew 4,000 screaming and cheering fans to DAR Constitution Hall.

"People like us who are second-generation need a medium to find our root, and bhangra happens to be really fun," said Omar Sarwar, a member of Columbia's team and a senior majoring in religion and economics. "It's a medium to find something that your parents can't transmit to you."

Both the dance and musical forms of bhangra trace their roots to Punjab, an agrarian region that straddles India and Pakistan. Punjabi men perform bhangra to celebrate such occasions as a harvest, the birth of a child or a wedding. It is accompanied by singing and the beating of the dhol.

On Saturday night, many bhangra teams, dressed in color-coordinated costumes, had their own singers and dhol players. Most of the 10 acts featured human pyramids, with teammates being spun around and jumped over. The acrobatics were less than in years past but still raised eyebrows.

"Historically speaking, bhangra was not like that," said Preeti Mehrotra, a pre-med junior at George Washington. "It's very much an artistic debate. Bhangra has gotten so much exposure, but we kind of lose what's authentic."

Unlike the days when Bhangra Blowout began, today's college students live in a world where many things South Asian -- from the henna tattoos offered at flea markets to the opening of "Bombay Dreams" on Broadway -- suddenly seem cool. Even pop star Britney Spears and rapper Jay-Z have seen success with numbers that mix their music with bhangra.

Montgomery County has started offering recreational bhangra classes, which instructor Kumud Mathur describes as a "beautiful cardiovascular exercise." She also plans to start teaching what she terms "elite bhangra," a slower, more graceful form of the dance, at Bukhara restaurant in Arlington.

And promoters in the Washington area say the guest lists for their South Asian-themed nightclub parties are growing longer and longer, fueled by growth in the region's South Asian community and a cross-cultural interest in bhangra. The number of Indians in the Washington area doubled between the 1990 and 2000 censuses, as it did nationwide, and totals about 78,000, due in part to the high-tech industry's need for skilled workers.

"Young professionals always need an outlet to go out and party. A lot of singles want to meet people," said Roshan Polepalli, a partner in Eclipse Productions, which organized several parties around Bhangra Blowout. "Now it's become mainstream. A lot of deejays are picking up Indian records and learning how to spin them."

Eight years ago, when Aziz Ahmed started to promote parties, club owners would tell him, "No Indian music."

"Now it's part of a trend," said the George Washington alumnus. "I think it's cool when you walk into a club and they play Indian beats."

His company, Enigma Entertainment, organized two parties before Bhangra Blowout and one after. As he stood outside Vida Lounge in Foggy Bottom just before midnight Saturday, Ahmed beamed at the long line of people waiting to get in. He guessed most of the people probably hadn't watched the competition.

"No one really cares about the show. They just come for the parties," he said. "Next year, I want to do something like Howard homecoming does with F Street. I'm going to make an outdoor block party."

There appeared to be two distinct crowds this weekend: those looking to party and those clinging to tradition. The latter group, at times, admitted to looking down on the former.

"People dance bhangra because it's cool, not because they know what it is," said Tejinder Singh, a coordinator with the Surrey India Arts Club, a Canada-based bhangra troupe that performed Saturday night. "You should know the base line and then experiment on top of it."

Last year, when Singh judged Bhangra Blowout, he said he awarded no points for acrobatics or hip-hop moves. The software engineer said he tries to educate those younger than himself about bhangra's roots, although he admitted that the dance has a history of evolving.

"There is no value for me if I cannot pass this off to the next generation," he said. "And you also have to open yourself to change. It's grown way beyond Punjab."

Judging from the sentiments of the crowd of performers this weekend, he will likely have an audience of eager learners.

Rutgers University's winning bhangra ensemble, for example, spent much of its early practices learning what Punjabi lyrics mean and how bhangra was danced in Punjabi villages.

"Sometimes we feel like bhangra is straying away and turning into a dance other than bhangra," said Divnain Singh Malik, a Rutgers dancer. "We want to bring it back."

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