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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

From ballet to Bollywood

Published: April 23, 2010
Section: Arts, Etc.

GRAPHIC BY Ariel Wittenberg/The Hoot

Reaching your senior year, especially the second semester, is the mid-life crisis of college. After throwing myself into academics and extracurricular activities for the past seven semesters, I began to wind down my commitments at the beginning of this semester and thought of all the other great opportunities I would have loved to have taken advantage of at Brandeis. So, like a panicked 45-year-old, I took up an activity that reminded me of my youthful energy. However, this endeavor did not come in the form of a shiny, red sports car—instead, I signed up to do a Bollywood dance as part of Chak De ‘Deis, Brandeis’ South Asian dance team, for Culture X.

I had grown up doing various forms of dance—ballet, tap, hip-hop, jazz—in addition to gymnastics. My first mistake in approaching this dance was assuming the dance skills that I had learned and then dropped in the ninth grade would ease my transition into Bollywood dance. False. I also thought the fact that I’m half-Malaysian would help me pick up some of the South Asian mannerisms. Again, I was wrong. My third assumption was that, since my dance captain is also my roommate, things would go easier for me. Yup, you guessed it—false.

The first practice essentially kicked my butt and left me questioning my motor skills in general. I went right when we were supposed to go left; I pointed my toes (partially out of habit from ballet) when a heel was appropriate. A major stumbling block for me was just getting used to the fast pace and trying to keep up with the music.

However, the mannerisms also contradict the norm of Western dance with its emphasis on pointed toes and straight lines. Apparently, the hours I spent in ballet class as an eight-year-old would be no help here. Even after countless practices, I still have trouble fanning out my fingers to make a hand gesture representing a lotus flower. As I attempt to stretch and point my fingers in five different directions, I watch the other classically-trained Indian girls in the dance throw up their hands and form the gesture without so much as a second’s hesitation.

Bollywood dance has an energy to it that I think few other styles of dance capture. It is at once enlivening and graceful. The music really does make you want to get up and dance, which may explain why so many Bollywood movies involve the characters breaking out into complex dance sequences in the middle of the street. The energy is what bridges the cultural gap and makes this dance so entertaining to watch and (attempt to) do.

Even though few people in the audience will understand the meaning of the songs, this dance conveys its message by calling upon every limb in your body. Who knew the flicking of a hand could convey the heartbreak of the singer? As you can imagine, this requires loosening up your body and bending your wrist one way, while your fingers point another—not an easy feat for a girl raised to sit stiffly upright.

Learning how to dance, especially a dance of Eastern origin, has done many things to me. I now walk around humming Indian songs and attempting to pronounce lyrics I don’t understand, not to speak of the physical toll bi-weekly practices have had on the soles of my feet. If you’re around this weekend, come check out Culture X. Maybe it will pique your interest and, maybe next year, you’ll be the one channeling Indian superstar Aishwarya Rai on stage.