Learning how to dance like a star
STORY BY Anne Haddad PHOTOGRAPHY BY Mary C. Gardella
No arm twisting was needed to convince Shereé Lucas when her friend Jann Hsu suggested they enroll in the noncredit Indian Bollywood Dance course at Howard Community College (HCC). By the first class, they were twisting their arms, rotating their wrists, rolling their shoulders and swinging their hips in new and expressive ways. And for the last class of the session, they perform a six-minute choreographed routine, swirling in colorful embroidered skirts and smiling for the camera as instructor Renu Gholap records them with her iPhone.
Before she starts recording, Gholap gives them one last piece of advice. “Even when you make a mistake, don’t show it – don’t stop, just do this,” she says as she demonstrates a hip swaying that could disguise any missteps with grace and fluidity. “Whatever happens, smile, please!” Gholap’s advice works, and the dancers seamlessly perform the routine straight through, enjoying the effect in the mirrored wall of the studio. The smiles may be conscious, but they radiate with the pure joy of movement. Lucas says this joy of movement is part of her spirituality. She has a doctor of ministry degree and sings and records Christian music. “I’ve been dancing since I was 8 years old,” Lucas says.
“Bollywood is definitely a uniquely expressive kind of dancing.” While the form, whose name comes from India’s Hindi film industry, reminds her of Zumba and Latin dance, she says, “The unique thing about Bollywood is the hands.” The distinctive and precise hand movements punctuate all the other steps, drawing the observer’s attention along the lines of a move or to wherever the hands stop – in front of the dancer’s smiling face, for example. Or maybe it’s a sad face, or a flirty face. Expression is everything. “You can find all kinds of dancing in Bollywood films – slow, fast, sad, romantic, festive,” says Gholap, who lives in Ellicott City and has been teaching Bollywood dance for 15 years, including at HCC since 2010. She has two teen daughters and both dance. “Bollywood dance is about moving the hips, but also about using the shoulders, the head, the eyes and different expressions and gestures,” Gholap says.
“Bollywood is the integration of all types of dance in India.” Its roots are in the classical forms of Indian dance often taught beginning in childhood, as disciplined as ballet, but the moves are popularized, blending different classical styles and even incorporating some modern influences from the United States and Latin America. Many clubs and deejays mix Bollywood or Bhangra – an energetic type of dance that comes from the Punjab region of northern India and Pakistan – into their repertoires. While the dancers in actual Bollywood movies are professionals, the style can be made very accessible for the average wedding guest. In fact, it is typical for an Indian bridal party to perform a dance routine together, and Gholap also teaches these groups in another setting. Indian marriages often involve elaborate celebrations that can last for days, she explains.
Choreographed dances and the application of henna designs on the hands of the bride and the other women in the party are part of the tradition. The participants in the HCC classes, however, are primarily non-Indian students who come for fun and fitness. Hsu, 54, and Lucas, 45, both of Columbia, and Amy Beverungen, 25, of Baltimore, were among six students who attended the sessions last spring. “I’ve taken this class a lot – I get a little better each time,” says Beverungen, who recently completed her bachelor of fine arts degree at Maryland Institute College of Art, where she majored in art history. “Junior year, I saw a lot of Bollywood films and fell in love with Indian music and dance.” Learning Bollywood dance has helped her overcome shyness, she says.
HCC offers other noncredit dance classes in salsa, bachata (from the Dominican Republic), fox trot, rhumba, swing and other styles. The course description for the Bollywood class tells prospective students that the style combines “modern choreography with modified classical movements” and is “a fun and energetic dance form” that “engages the mind and body.” Gholap teaches six-week sessions ($109 for six classes) at the Oakland Mills High School dance studio, which has ballet barres and a full wall of mirrors so dancers can watch themselves and each other. All skill levels are welcome, says Gholap, who’s had students of all ages (up to 70 years of age and older). If a student has arthritic joints, for example, she will teach a modification tailored for knees, shoulders or hips – wherever the limitation might be. She tells students to arrive in loose, comfortable clothing. Most people wear gym clothes such as yoga pants or leggings. Warm-ups start with some familiar moves – jumping jacks, lunges and stretching. And on the last class of the session, Gholap passes out brightly colored Indian skirts that the students throw on over their clothing, and they perform the routine without interruption – for the video camera.*
HOW TO WATCH THE FILMS AND LEARN SOME DANCE MOVES
India has produced and exported crowd-pleasing musicals since the 1930s. The term “Bollywood” is widely used outside of India to refer to all films produced in that country that feature song and dance scenes to enhance dramatic, romantic or even comedic scenes. Technically, Bollywood refers specifically to the Hindi language film industry based in Mumbai, and the term is a portmanteau combining Hollywood and Bombay (now known as Mumbai). According to Wikipedia, there was first “Tollywood,” referring to the Bengali film industry based in the Tollygunge area of Kolkata. It isn’t hard to find Bollywood films to watch for inspiration. Here are a few sources:
Howard County Public Library Many Bollywood films are available to check out, and a few even teach a Bollywoodstyle workout or dance. Gholap recommends any movie with her favorite actress-singer-dancer, Madhuri Dixit. Amazon.com and Netflix Some films are available to watch for free if you have Amazon Prime, but “Aaja Nachle,” the film whose title song Gholap uses for her class, was only available for sale. Theaters Several multiplexes – including UA Snowden Square Stadium 14 – show Indian films, but the showings aren’t always well publicized, and the films might only show one day per week.
• Enter “Bollywood dance instruction” in the search field and choose from among many instructional videos.
• One sample workout routine is “How to Dance Pop Bhangra Style” by Doonya. The Bhangra workout is fast and energetic, and really more like a workout than a choreographed dance routine.
• For quick and effective instruction just before you need to go to a club or an Indian wedding, Good Indian Girl (www.goodindiangirl.com) teaches about six basic and easy moves that could serve anyone well on the dance floor, and you can learn them even if the wedding is tonight. The video, “How to Learn Bollywood and Bhangra Dance,” is on the Good Indian Girl site as well as on YouTube.
• iTunes – Songs from the movies can be downloaded to your iPod, and even if you don’t want to dance, the infectious and steady beats can fuel and pace a run or brisk walk. You can sample several of hem on iTunes, but “Aaja Nachle” and “Devdas” are two that Gholap recommends. Both are titles of movies as well as the main song from the movies.
Beyond Bollywood It’s worth noting that some Indian films are decidedly not Bollywoodstyle musicals. The films of the late Satyagit Ray are beautifully filmed dramas, mostly in lush black and white. Ray has been described by Martin Scorcese and others as one of the best filmmakers of the 20th century. Start with “Pather Panchali (A Song of the Little Road)” (1955), which has a background score by Ravi Shankar.