Madhuri in Your Midst

Photo credit: Pooja Narang & A J Lamba  

This is a story I wrote  that appeared in the February 23, 2007 issue of India Abroad.  

On a Saturday afternoon, the cold and the wind on the streets of New York’s garment district are searing.   But up on the 14th floor, as the sun pours in the window of the studio and steam escapes from an old radiator, the 18 women and two men in Pooja Narang’s advanced Bollywood dance class might just as well be at Mumbai’s Film City, waiting for Hrithik Roshan and Aishwarya Rai to emerge from their trailers and join them.

Narang’s iPod is hooked up to a set of small, powerful speakers.   As she presses “play”, the bhangra intro of Dil Laga Na from the movie Dhoom: 2 fills the room.   The three rows of students begin their routine, working on a segment of the number, then stopping to clarify a move.   “Is there a head bop there?” a student asks.   “No,” Narang replies.   “Only if you’ve got attitude” a woman on the other side of the room adds.   Laughter fills the room.

The dancers are dressed in everything from tank tops and boot cut black dance pants – with an occasional tattoo on a shoulder blade here or there – to sweat pants and tees.   Gold bangles jingle on a wrist.   Some are barefooted, others wear dance shoes.   Half an hour into the two-hour class, everyone is perspiring, though Narang less so.   She watches her charges execute her choreography, sometimes turning to show them a move or other in the wall of mirrors.   The group face the mirrors, and without the music, several sing softly “Koi yeh maane na, koi yeh jane ja”.   Arms glide, bodies sway, feet twist.   Frequently, one half of the group – nine girls – will execute part of the routine, then the other nine girls will repeat it.   Finally, the two guys in the class will do the male dancer steps solo.   After each essay, everyone who has been watching applauds.  

The dancers seem between their early 20s and mid-30s.   Save for a young, tall African-American woman and a blonde, Caucasian woman, the remaining 16 women in the class are of Indian origin.   Some wear no make-up at all; some have come in full eye shadow, mascara and lipstick.   From the variety of accents in the low chatter among the classmates, there seems to be an almost equal mix of American-born Indians, and those more recently arrived.

Narang, 29, says that since she started her Bollywood Axion classes with 10 students in 2003, “it’s just grown and grown.   Currently there are 250 people taking classes.”   She also offers classes for children in Westchester.

As a Toronto-born Punjabi girl, Narang began dancing at the many family parties she attended, trying to imitate the moves of the adults around her, as they danced to bhangra tunes that had come across the Atlantic from Britain.  

“As I was growing up,” says Narang, “people around me, even from my own culture said “˜Oh, that’s not cool’, but I thought: “˜Oh well, it appeals to me’ and it got me even more into my culture.” Her life was changed by a Maharashtrian woman she didn’t even know.   She was 12 or 13 when she saw Madhuri Dixit in the 1988 hit Tezaab.  

“I thought “˜Wow, she can move like that!   I wish I could move like that!’   I would come home from school, do my homework and spend the rest of the night going frame by frame over her movies, picking up what she was doing,” Narang remembers.

A family connection got her an opportunity to train with star Bollywood choreographer Saroj Khan.   Another trip to India saw Pooja studying traditional bhangra and gidda from a professional bhangra troupe in a village in Punjab.   After a degree as an information technology administrator, – which helped her set up her Web site – she taught dance in Toronto, then set her sights on New York City.

“I did notice that in New York,” Narang says, “people of all different backgrounds are curious to learn new things about other cultures, particularly if it gives them a good workout.”  

The first person to sign up was German.   “I’m amazed at the number of people who are non-Indian and are so into it,” Narang says, “and watch the movies religiously, and know the actors, and even some of the words.   It was very surprising for me.”

On this Saturday afternoon advanced class, the students are gearing up for a March 31 performance.   Each of the classes, from beginner to advanced, will dance at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center theater in lower Manhattan.   Among the students, there is a human resources manager, a film editor, a graphic designer, an attorney and two management consultants.

Pooja Bakri, originally of North Carolina, who has made Manhattan her home for the past seven years, runs her own graphic design business.   Before Bollywood dance, she studied jazz and modern dance when she was younger.   More recently she took class and performed Middle Eastern dance.   After taking a bhangra class with Sarina Jain, she met Narang.

“I took a class and immediately connected to the music like never before,” Bakri says.   “All of a sudden, this music that I always associated with my parents’ generation, that I couldn’t relate to as an Indian American, now was something that I could relate to. In many ways, Bollywood dance is a way for me to experience the culture and India in a way that is very now and unique to me,” she adds.  

“I’m thrilled to experience this type of dance and culture and share it with people of all races,”   says Bakri about the non-Indians in the class.   “I think Pooja (Narang) really tries to include everybody.   And for people who don’t understand the lyrics – that’s such a huge part of the dance – she takes the time to explain them.”

Amid the sea of ponytails and curves in the advanced class, two male figures at the back of the room move energetically.   Ramin Mahajan, 27, is half Indian and half Iranian.   He grew up in Austin, Texas, watching his mother and sister study Bharat Natyam.   Having completed his MBA at Northwestern University, he moved to New York six months ago and found Bollywood Axion through an online search.   He admits to feeling a little self-conscious initially, especially when he and Chandan Toloney, the other male dancer, would have to dance alone.   Now, Mahajan says he looks forward to the weekend class.  

“First, because it’s a really good workout,” he explains.   “And, it’s an escape.   I like listening to the music, and it’s a time when I can give my mind a rest.”  

Back home in Austin, he and his family will go together to the cinema and see whatever the latest Hindi release is.   His family is excited by his new pastime.

“My Dad’s happy because it’s a way to connect with India,” says Mahajan.   At the popular Basement Bhangra with friends recently, Mahajan says “one friend had never seen me dance since taking the class, and she was really impressed.”

The other management consultant dancing on west 38th street every Saturday is 22-year-old Melanie Kannokada.   The former Chicago resident, daughter of parents from Kerala, graduated recently from Stanford with a degree in mechanical engineering.   In between, the avid martial artist with a 2nd degree black belt in karate decided to try her hand – or feet, as it were – at dancing in an Indian cultural show on campus in California.   She was hooked.   Throughout college, Kannokada performed in the Stanford troupe, called Dil Se.   She entered the Miss India America pageant, and won.   At the competition, she met a girl from New York who was in Narang’s Bollywood dance troupe. That is how she found out about the class.

Kannokada raves about the class: “The choreography is dynamic and her selection of music is cool.   At the same time, it’s a good workout.   I’m happy to see people of all backgrounds participate in this genre.”

After the two-hour advanced class, several people stay for an extra hour of rehearsal.   As Main Vari Vari from the Aamir Khan movie Mangal Pandey fills the studio, followed by the Salaam number performed by Aishwarya Rai in last year’s Umrao Jaan, the young women are mesmerizing.   Their arms curve, hands flutter, and their eyes flirt with some invisible suitor in the mirror.   It’s easy to forget I’m not actually watching them onscreen, clad in lush Manish Malhotra creations, dripping with jewels.

And you don’t have to be desi either.   Roxanne Miller is a tall, 28-year-old woman from Queens, New York, the daughter of a Puerto Rican mother, and a father who is half black and half white.   “Being of mixed cultures, I’ve always lived around different cultures,” Miller says.   “I’ve had no problem adapting.”

Like several of her classmates, Miller danced previously, studying tap for over a decade, then bellydance for four years, even participating in Caring Caravans, a volunteer group that would perform bellydances at senior citizen centers.   She had an Indian friend from Barbados who showed her the Karan Johar blockbuster Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham.   She was “absolutely hooked. ”

“I typed in “˜Bollywood dance’ on the computer and Pooja’s name came up,” says Miller.   “I started taking class with her in her first six months of teaching.   I am an addict, a big Shah Rukh Khan and Hrithik Roshan fan.”

She is preparing for two solos at the March 31 performance.   “I’ll be dancing to “˜Radha Kaise Na Jale’ from Lagaan (starring Aamir Khan) and “˜Kehna Hi Kya’ from (the Mani Ratnam movie)   Bombay,” Miller says.   She’ll be wearing a lehenga.   A trip to India at the end of the year is on the cards, with dance class friends.

On another wintry night, Narang is putting a beginner’s class through their paces.   The Dhoom 2: spell continues, the song of the moment was Touch Me.   Of the group of 13, there is almost a 50:50 mix of desis and non-desis.   What the ensemble may lack in polish or precision, they make up for with enthusiasm and willingness to coach other students flummoxed by a particular step, often using a shorthand of terms that Narang and the group have developed to describe the movements.   One petite blonde woman tells her neighbor: “”¦after ‘tequila’ then you’re a bird.   Birds step forward with their right foot, then you go wiki, wiki, like you’re a deejay.”

At the front of the room is Chintan Patel, a 25-year-old software developer from Bombay.   He dances with feverish enthusiasm and abandon.  

“Having grown up watching Bollywood movies, all the song and dance in the movies excites me,” says Patel.   “I used to take part in dance competitions back home in India. After coming to the US, I used to miss the fun of Bollywood dancing,so I joined Bollywood Axion last September.”

As effervescent as Patel is Joy Rodriguez, a petite, 36-year-old native New Yorker of Filipino heritage.   An attorney by day, she seems to dance without having to think about what steps come next.   She came to Bollywood dance to try something new.   She too praises Narang’s hospitality as an instructor: “At some classes or one of the recitals I did feel like I was being looked down on by one or two people because I wasn’t Indian, but never by Pooja and the majority of people in the class.”

Rodriguez welcomes the break at the end of the work day:   “All your problems of the day disappear once the music starts.”

It is not surprising Bollywood dance classes are successful in the multicultural New York area.   In Manhattan, Lotus Music and Dance offers not just Hindi film dance, Odissi and Bharat Natyam, but also hula, Tahitian, and flamenco, among others.   Over the Hudson River in Jersey City, Surati Dance offers Bollywood and folk dances, as well as in Woodbridge and Manhattan.   If you go to any of the larger American cities with significant Indian communities (Washington D.C., San Francisco, Houston), you will likely be able to find Bollywood dance classes.

Even in cities like Denver and Boulder classes are now available, at a school called Bollywood West, run by dancer, choreographer and instructor Renu Kansal.   The daughter of an Indian father and Canadian mother, Kansal lived in New York for several years and danced, studied and taught with Narang.   With Narang’s encouragement to offer classes in her newly adopted home of Denver, Kansal was amazed to see the response.   Less than three months after arriving, she found herself teaching and performing full-time.   Shuttling the 30 miles between Denver and Boulder, Kansal offers six classes a week.

 “I would love to be able to offer more classes,” she says, “but it seems a lot of people like my class because of the personal attention.   I know all my students by name, I know what’s going on in their lives.   I worry that taking someone else on might not mean the same level of personal relationship.   Growth can be great, but at the cost of what, is what I have to weigh.”

She also has a dance troupe who perform at events as diverse as a recent salute to cultural dances to a healthcare company’s day dedicated to women and fitness.

The demographics in her classes are similar to those in New York: 85 percent female to 15 precent male, 60 percent desi to 40percent non-desi, and ages in the twenties and thirties.   Among her students, Kansal has a non-Indian family of four – father, mother, and two teenage daughters – and a couple in their sixties.   There’s also Trinidadian student, Indar Singh, who learned about the classes from a roommate and signed up.  

Of her non-desi students, Kansal says: “They don’t just come for dance class.   They come to learn how do you say that word, what does that mean, why do you celebrate that holiday, what’s the significance of it, how do you wear this sari.   They want to know so much more than the dance, which is really just a gateway to learn more about the culture.   I think it’s great.”
“In the last few weeks,” she continues, “I taught them the Lohri dance from Veer-Zaara (starring Shah Rukh Khan and Preity Zinta) because the Lohri festival had happened January 14.   So it was something I could tie in with the dance.”

Is any of her students pursuing a career in Bollywood?

“Just being able to have an adult performing troupe allows them to get that out of their system, and get their film hero on,” Kansal replies.   “When we performed last night, one of the guys brought his entire posse out.   They were screaming and cheering and everybody got so fed by that and really wound up and excited, that there’s no need to fly all the way to India.”

5 thoughts on “Madhuri in Your Midst

  1. Hi Filmi,

    This is awesome! I love to read about Indian dance companies and see there are many people that have brought the East to the West.

    I’d like for you to check out Naach Company. They have expanded exponentially and have become the Bollywood beat of the Bay Area in California.

    Within 4 years, we have launched 10 locations and have expanded into Southern California as well. We followed the Hollywood calling and have now established our fitness program (Naachercise) there as well.

    I wish there was some way to connect Pooja’s style and the Naach style in a show. That would really be a rocking show!

    Keep up the good work, if you feel like flying out to California let me know I’d love to fly you out to dance with us!


  2. Hey G, thanks!

    She is/was a regular figure in NY (have seen her myself several times at bhangra night at a place downtown. Her bhangra exercise videos were usually promoted on the Saturday morning desi shows we get here, on onw of which she used to do a request feature for people dedicating movie songs to people.

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