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February 13, 2007 > Shimmy and shake with Bollywood Dance

Shimmy and shake with Bollywood Dance

By Vidya Pradhan

Indian movies have a proud tradition of song and dance. If you've ever seen an Indian movie that's not art house fare, chances are you've encountered the phenomenon known as Bollywood dance. Once inspired by musicals of Hollywood, the ensemble numbers never went out of style in India; it is de rigueur for a typical movie to have at least two to three dance 'items' as they are called. They provide an element of escapism in grim stories of suffering and political corruption and showcase the multiple talents of well-endowed beauties on screen. And in movies that often stretch to run times of 3 hours, they provide a much needed bathroom break!

In the beginning, dances in Indian movies usually reflected classical and folk traditions. But in the 60's choreographers in India were bitten by the swing bug, creating variations on the tango and the twist for dance numbers. These were usually performed by a seductress character to tempt the hero. As these performances became hugely popular, more and more western themes were incorporated into mainstream movies in every language.

Credit for the prototype of what is considered Bollywood dance today can perhaps be given to large studio films originating in South India. Dances involved outrageous props, garish costumes, plenty of gyrating flesh and a large cast of synchronized dancers. Wildly popular, they soon made the transition to movies in Bollywood where dances (and the props) got bigger and flashier till they parodied themselves in absurd concoctions involving giant pots and free-standing Greek columns.

In the 90's, excesses of the previous decade mercifully came to an end. Urban culture began to value fitness and health over prosperously padded bodies. Dances began to have a decidedly aerobic influence using a cast of well-toned, lithe performers. The music also borrowed from rock and roll and pop genres, with catchy lyrics and foot-tapping beats. Actors aspiring to commercial success were required to have dancing talent on their resume. Choreographers gave the western sounding music a uniquely Indian twist by fusing break dance with Bharatnatyam to create the genre known as Bollywood dance. Among the most well known of them is Shiamak Davar, who started several dance schools in India to capitalize on this craze.

Bollywood dance is heavily inspired by western influences, so it is rather ironic that it has spawned a movement that is increasingly popular in the Bay area. There are two major companies popularizing this genre through dance and exercise.

Shalini Dodds, a trained Bharatnatyam dancer, runs Stepz, a dance and exercise company in Fremont. Stepz 'n Speed classes are aerobics to the tune of remixed Bollywood songs; intense hour-long workouts that add flowing arm movements to target every muscle in the body. Members come as much to enjoy the music and meet friends as to lose calories. Says Shalini, "We offer well thought out content, well designed fitness programs and most importantly, we want each student to feel that this is their time where they can leave the cares of the world behind and just think of themselves for an hour." She also prefers the term 'Fitness through dance' to describe her classes.

Stepz also offers classes in choreographed dances where the class learns moves for one song over the course of an 8-10 week session. At the end of the session, students either have a performance in class or on stage in two semi-annual events known as 'Summer Funk' and 'Winter Funk'. Stepz is unique in that classes are offered for kids as young as two and a half years in a program cleverly called 'Baby Stepz'.

Naach is another group operating exercise and dance classes in several Bay Area cities. It boasts a larger number of students and often invites professional dancers and choreographers to its semi-annual shows.

While Bollywood dance is still dominated by Indians, there is evidence that it is entering the mainstream. Thirty percent of Stepz clients are non-Indians. Sherri Luther takes the Stepz 'n Speed class in Sunnyvale. "It's an energizing, cardio workout. The music is upbeat and uplifting and I have a great time. It is a lot of fun and I really look forward to it." Sherri does not understand the language - the songs are usually in Hindi - but feels this is not a barrier to learning and the instructor usually explains the significance of hand movements. She has performed in several choreographed numbers just following the rhythm.

Dimitra Tamaresis, an American of Greek and Romanian origin, got hooked on Bollywood dance after watching a few Indian movies. She loves Bollywood music for its 'pure idealization of love' something she feels is missing in American culture. "It speaks to my heart," she says, adding that she knows all the lyrics to the songs she dances to even if she doesn't understand a word!

Stepz and Naach are not alone in offering exercise programs set to Bollywood music. The format is so popular that several 'me-too' programs sprout daily in schools, homes and garages around the Bay Area. Interest is also fuelled by dance competitions in this genre held by various schools and non-profit organizations several times during the year. Most of these competitions are for children but there are also prestigious events for adults, one notably conducted at UC Berkeley.

The bigger dance troupes don't restrict themselves to dance and exercise classes. Both Stepz and Naach conduct corporate workshops customized to client needs. They also devote time to helping non-profit organizations with fundraising.

Shalini Dodds at (408) 834-2077

Naach Company

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