Bollywood-inspired dance classes merge culture with aerobics for a full mind-body workout.
Photography by Alexis McKeown
Bollywood, India’s film industry, is one of the largest in the world, producing more movies annually than Hollywood. The term Bollywood is a combination of Bombay (the former name of Mumbai) and Hollywood, but it mainly refers to the genre of Indian musicals rather than a location. In Bollywood musicals, song and dance numbers fill the screen, perfectly choreographed and charged with emotional energy. And now Bollywood is creeping from the big screen into dance studios around the world, including here in Edmonton.
Bollywood dance is all about legs, hips and hand gestures. It combines ancient movements choreographed to please temple deities with traditional folk dances from Indian subcultures, as well as modern jazz, salsa and hip hop.
Whether it’s women of Indian heritage looking to mimic their favourite stars’ dance moves or Western women intrigued with Bollywood’s glamour and Indian mysticism, there’s growing interest in this dance form here. Since Bollywood pulls from India’s ancient roots and links them to modern dance, it’s critical to learn from a teacher who understands the whole picture. And while finding a qualified teacher can be a challenge, two local instructors are changing that.
“Bollywood dancing involves coordination, rhythm and getting a great workout,” says Ashley Kumar, president and artistic director of Sharara Entertainment Group. Kumar, 28, has been training since she was 10 and is now a professional choreographer, certified group fitness instructor and personal trainer who uses Bollywood dance as a way to keep students fit.
“It’s primarily an aerobic workout,” she says. “There are many lunges and jumps which help to strengthen, trim and tone the legs and butt. There can be significant bending, which strengthens both the back muscles and the abs.”
Trisha Sarker of Lotus Dance Productions choreographs and teaches Bollywood classes through her business and as a fine arts instructor for the City of Edmonton. She grew up practising Bengali folk dance and studied classical Indian dance for 10 years with a qualified guru before shifting into Bollywood style. “Bollywood dancing is full of glamour and glitz. It’s a blend of modern and classical – it takes movements from both of these traditions, and from the West, and integrates everything.”
One of Sarker’s students is Tara McKnight, who first attended a Bollywood class last year after watching Sarker perform. “I was intrigued, and the first Bollywood class I took was Sarker’s at the City Arts Centre,” says McKnight. “I was nervous about dancing to choreography and wasn’t sure if I’d be able to keep up. Luckily, Trisha simplified the steps well for the beginner class.”
McKnight says that once her initial jitters cleared, it was easy for her to find a playful groove. “Trisha teaches the meaning, reason or story that supports every movement. She cares about the culture – about what she’s teaching – and ensures her students also understand. It gives students more purpose to perform the intricate moves perfectly.”
It’s that combination of an understanding of the culture and the significance of the moves, in addition to mastery of the choreography itself, that adds to the intrigue of Bollywood dance. It’s not just an aerobics class, it’s a cultural experience as well, and the culture and background of the story are an important part of the dance.
“For the most part, traditional Indian dancing tells a story, and the lyrics or emotion are interpreted through movement,” says Kumar.
Coming from a film tradition, many of the movements are part of a language or code. For example, there are movements that mean love and attraction, some of them quite poetic.
“A common hand gesture we use when expressing love is the bee and the flower,” says Sarker. “On one hand we press our index and middle fingers with the thumb and extend the ring finger and pinky straight up; for the flower we take the other hand, spread out the fingers and pull the pinky in to create a flower.”
Another example would be spinning. “Spinning in a love song could depict the infatuation or ‘dizziness’ of the feeling of falling in love,” says Kumar.
If you want to ease yourself into this cultural experience, you can check out some Bollywood films around the city.
“When I go to the Cineplex in South Edmonton Common, there are often two Bollywood shows playing,” notes Sarker. “It makes the world closer when people can experience other cultures.”
Whether you’re learning Bollywood dance for the culture or as a way to stay fit, it will keep you moving to an essential rhythm rooted in India’s history and merged with the modern.