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Bhangra Badass… Or Just Plain Bad?

By October 27, 2006December 13th, 2022No Comments

Check this column out in the new issue of Divanee magazine

Balle Balle on a Thursday Thursday

I admit it: Back in college, I was a dancing queen — desi style, that is. I choreographed the all-girls dance three years in a row, performed a mean “Bole Churiya,” and twirled my way through an entire dizzying garba. So armed with a resume of bona fide Bollywood-bootyshaking credentials, I decided to give the ammi of all desi dance forms a try—which is why I’m here today, standing in front of the New York Sports Club on 40th Street, heading into a bhangra workout class.

Everywhere you look, India is in vogue, and judging by the scores of non-desis lining up for Bollywood films, chicken tikka masala, and eyebrow threading, Sarina Jain knew what she was doing when she fused one of America’s biggest obsessions (fitness) with one of India’s (bhangra, oy hoy!) to start the Masala Bhangra phenomenon nearly a decade ago. Since then, thousands of uncoordinated white folks have bought her hugely successful workout videos and gone on to “screw lightbulbs,” “raise the roof,” and “scatter seeds” in their own clumsy interpretations of Punjab’s harvest dance. If they can do it, so can I!, I decided eagerly, and now I’m about to take a crack at a dance created by a race characterized by the robust masculinity of its people… even the women. Who cares if I’m petite and fragile and no more virile than Elton John? Bhangra doesn’t stand a chance against these hips. Brruah it on!

7:00 p.m. This would be a great place to pick up chicks, I think to myself as I stand awkwardly in the back of the studio, watching the ladies trickle in. Where the guys at? Sarina Jain bounds into the room, radiating more energy from each strand of her long black hair than I’ve been able to muster up all week. “Hi ladies, you ready to go?” her voice booms, bouncing off the walls—much like the workout dynamo herself. I debate taking shelter from her overpowering enthusiasm in the back of the mirrored room—there, behind the girl in the “iBalle” T-shirt, perhaps?—but decide, for research purposes, to position myself directly behind the spirited Jain herself. Big mistake.

7:04 p.m. “Alright, everyone, warm up! Pump your shoulders!” yells Jain as blaring bhangra beats engulf the studio. I eagerly begin pumping my shoulders, but instantly regret my decision to dance with Nikes still firmly ensconcing my already sweltering feet. But the prospect of being decapitated by a stray arm maneuver scares me off of the idea of running to the back of the room to kick them off, so I suck it up.

7:08 p.m. “Push it out, push it out, and back, and back!” Jain bellows over the thumping dhol resonating through the small space as she instructs us through a mini routine. The move is more reminiscent of the electric slide than what I might expect to see in a Punjabi field, but what do I know, right? I struggle to keep up but I’m already winded, and a glance in the mirror confirms it: my cheeks are flushed, and a thin film of perspiration has begun coating my forehead. But that’s OK, because at least my form looks good, right? All flowing and smooth and graceful…

7:11 p.m. Suddenly there’s a voice in my ear. “Here, like this!” Jain roars into my eardrums, appearing next at my side to twist my arms into the correct right angles on my behalf. How embarrassing. I’m the bhangra-class dunce. Now both my feet and my face are burning up. What was I thinking – there’s no place for grace in bhangra! Time to get manly. I put on my surliest face and get down to business. Grr.

7:17 p.m. The entire class is stomping in sync, and I’m all but grunting when Jain beseeches us to “Show me your sexy hands!” and directs us through some sultry arm motions – finally, something I can do! But wait a second, when the hell did this become Masala Seduction class? These feminine moves hardly fit in with the other testosterone-fueled bhangra steps we’ve been learning. You can’t grunt while you make sexy hands.

7:21 p.m. But after a brief lapse into lady-land, Jain is back on track. We convulse into a series of kicks that take us lower and lower to the ground—well, technically “us” isn’t accurate, since I’m too drained to partake in the action. After a few lackluster leg lifts I take a break and rest my hands on my knees, panting and observing the mayhem. Class must almost be over, right…?

7:46 p.m. …Not so much. After a seemingly eternal 45 minutes complete with countless mess-ups and audible gasps for air (mine) and enthusiastic facial expressions and passionate grunts (everyone else’s), on top of Jain’s cries of “This is my favorite song!” (at the start of every number, each of which sounds alarmingly like the one before it), the high-energy class finally balle-s its way into cooldown mode. Even I’m capable of inhaling and exhaling without personal assistance from Jain. My face slowly sheds its fiery hue and I join the exodus toward the locker room. And now that I can breathe a