Why does Indian Dance = Bollywood?

Trust me, I’m super happy that the 2013 Miss America is an American of Indian descent, because hey, Desi pride! I think it’s heartbreaking that people have been throwing race-related comments around and not realising that she IS American, as are thousands of other people, but my biggest beef within all this is her dance routine.

I’ve always wondered why Bollywood becomes basically the Indian Dance when what it essentially is, is a mix of various dance forms within minor elements of Indian Classical dance forms, with increasing western influence. I’ve always felt that if you want to properly represent and reflect Indian culture, you’ve got to go back to the basics.

Calling herself a ‘Classically trained dancer’, I expected more from Miss America’s performance. I was shocked at how sloppy the performance was in terms of choreography and footwork, and it came off as pandering to the audience to me. She had a beautiful smile on her face the whole time, but for a self-proclaimed ‘Classically Trained Dancer’, that performance was a joke. If you’re classically trained, and in a position where you have the power to bring elements of your culture to people who are not from the same background, why choose to perform something that keeps enforcing stereotypes that people have about Indian culture?

I’ve spent 17 years learning Bharathanatyam, the classical dance form originating from the state of Tamil Nadu in India (yes, we have different dance forms originating from different states. Kathakali and Mohini Aattam originate from Kerala, Odissi from Orissa, Kathak from the Northern states, Kuchipudi from Andra Pradesh, Sattriya from Assam, and so on). I enjoy doing pieces in the Bollywood style, I’ve even been in a performance in my high school where we did a mash-up piece to Flo-Rida’s Low and a Bollywood song (‘Twist’ from Love Aaj Kal, if you’re wondering) but nothing beats the rush of energy you feel when I’m practising and performing my classical pieces.

Indian Classical dance forms involve a lot of story-telling. They’re informative pieces that tell the stories of mythology (think the Ramayana, Mahabaratha, and other shorter stories), and they combine elaborate footwork with story-telling through hand gestures and facial expressions. If anyone competing in a competition wanted to use his or her background to make a point and convey a specific message, I’d say going back to your classical roots is a fantastic choice. By performing a classical piece, you wouldn’t just be doing an energetic dance piece that essentially doesn’t have any meaning (as is the case with most songs in Bollywood films; the songs and accompanying dances are there for pure entertainment and don’t add any anything to the storyline, and most of the time, start at highly inappropriate moments in the film) but you would be able to tell a short story that most people will at least understand the general idea of (a love story between Radha and Krishna, a fight tale where good triumphs over evil, etc.) and while doing this, you can also stun your audience with your seamless ability to balance elaborate sequences of fanciful footwork and hand gestures with this ability to tell stories!

The Western world’s perception of Bollywood as ‘The Indian Dance’ has annoyed me from the days when couples performed ‘Indian’ numbers on So You Think You Can Dance. I for one, spend hours watching stunning performances by these highly skilled dancers. I am in awe of their abilities and their versatility, and then when it comes to doing an Indian piece, their choice always seems to be Bollywood, and I feel like this is simply terrible.

A dancer at their level should be given the opportunity to pick up the basics of a classical Indian dance form, and they should be given the opportunity to understand the pain of learning to sit in Aramandi throughout a piece, or how to process the beats in a set song to suit the footwork. They can easily learn the choreography to an Allarippu, a simple opening item that is made up of purely footwork with no story-telling (this is the item that beginners learn, and while even those aged 5 or 6 learn and perform this item, it can still be exhausting on your arms after years of dancing). These are elements of dance that can be applied across various dance forms, and this is what dancers at their level should be learning and performing. I see no value in dancers trained in western dance forms such as Ballet and Jazz performing a Bollywood number.  It is just another choreography and doesn’t challenge the dancers, nor does it open their eyes up to other dance forms that they may not originally be trained in.

A quick search on SYTYCD videos on YouTube revealed a single video where an Indian dancer performed a Classical Kathak piece. I found at least a dozen videos of ‘Bollywood’ themed dances when I searched for “SYTYCD Indian Dance”. I have another line of argument that needs to be dealt with, and that’s to do with how people seem to have some wrong ideas about what Classical Indian Dance entails simply because people have the idea that Indian Dance = Bollywood, but that’s an argument for another day.

For now, all I’d like to say is that Miss America, I congratulate you for your achievements, but if you’re going to perform that same item on an international stage, you’re not going to impress nearly as many people.

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syf 2009

That’s me in my costume playing Kannagi in a performance (read about her, her story is fantastic) . Dancing means so much to me. I’ve been dancing since I was four, and watching my sister dance before that. I’ve grown up dancing a lot, and while I’m trained in Bharathanatyam, I’ve had the opportunity to pick up some basics of Kathakali and Kathak as well. It’s also incredibly fun to dance to Bollywood songs, and yes, as mentioned above, have even tried to make a mash-up work using a mix of western and classical styles. Most recently I took up a Salsa basics class, and found that to be great fun too, except I was taller than a good portion of the boys in my class. I love telling people about Bharathanatyam simply because it is a pretty good explanation for my penchant for the dramatics.

Note: Featured Image is from: http://news.bbcimg.co.uk/media/images/69884000/jpg/_69884577_nina-reuters.jpg

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