Rena Jain (centre) demonstrates a dance move to the male performers at a rehearsal in preparation for this weekend’s Western Cultural Show.

Photo: Michael Traikos

Strictly bhangra

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By Michael Traikos

The scene that plays out in Jorgenson Hall’s Metro Credit Union lounge could just as easily have been taken from the cheerleader movie Bring It On. Five guys attempt to form the base of a pyramid by kneeling down and linking their arms around each other’s shoulders. In a few seconds a brave girl will try to climb up their backs and balance herself into a standing position. They’re only a couple feet from the ground, but the guys’ shaky movements is causing the girl to feel tentative about climbing onto their bodies.

“You’re nervous. Don’t be,” encourages second-year film student Prem Singh. “Climb up like a monkey. Being fast won’t hurt.”

Taking the advice, the girl climbs aboard, but still ends up teetering back and forth as if riding a wave.

“Stop moving so much,” yells one of the many onlookers and unofficial coaches. “It’s not supposed to be a magic carpet ride.”

The more than 25 students dancing at Ryerson last Sunday are rehearsing for this weekend’s Western Culture Show, held at the University of Western Ontario. Every year, universities from across Ontario and Canada come to London, Ont. To decide who’s the Lord of the bhangra. Last year, the University of Waterloo took first prize in the festival, with a dance that blended traditional dance moves with modern beats. Ryerson didn’t place — a fact that this year’s team plans to change.

“Honestly speaking, we have a good chance of winning,” said Adit Chaudhry, a second-year IT student and vice-president of the Ryerson Indo-Canadian Student Association.

Chaudhry, who helped organize this year’s effort, and the others involved will practice for more than nine hours on this lazy Sunday afternoon — and they’re not doing it just because it’s fun. The gruelling rehearsal is the equivalent of a football practice. Performers complain of sore thighs, rest their hands on their knees between numbers, and reach for bottled water during down time. But competing in the Western Culture Show is worth the three months of practices, because for many of the Canadian-born students, it’s one of the only things they do to embrace their culture.

“At home we don’t do this,” admits Vaishali Sahni, a second-year radio and television arts student. “We don’t get many opportunities to do this in Canada. It’s a lot of work, but it’s a lot of fun.”

The Western Culture Show is packaged together to be a weekend of non-stop partying that most Indian-Canadian parents forbid. The appeal of the festival among Indian-Canadians is apparent by droves of people who line up for tickets as if it were a Rolling Stones concert, not a festival celebrating Indian culture. Chaudhry says tickets for the event sold out in two days and that some have even been auctioned on eBay. RICSA was allotted 30 passes to the show — one of the reasons why Chaudhry says many performers join — which doesn’t allow many parents or relatives the chance to attend.

Sahni, whose mom won’t be going to the festival, had to be content with watching her daughter and the others run through the sloppy rehearsal. Only two hours into their Sunday practice — they’ve been rehearsing twice a week for at least five hours each time since December — the dance steps were still being learned and revised. Guys were blamed for “not being able to dance” and the rehearsal seemed to be a case of too many generals, not enough soldiers. Still, Sahni’s mom “thought it was really amazing. She’s real supportive of what I’m doing.”

Ryerson, considered the underdogs of the festival (“They don’t think we’re a real university,” said Chaudhry), is taking this year’s participation seriously. How serious? In response to Waterloo’s yellow jumpsuits of last year, the non-dancing Ryerson members are planning to dress in army fatigues and wear camouflage make-up during Saturday’s performances. The idea is to earn ‘spirit points’ which are awarded to the school that exhibits the most pride.

This year Ryerson has outdone itself. In addition to balloons, glow sticks and confetti, the group also designed T-shirts that feature a ram with a turban on its head, which they plan to wear while cheering for their performers.

But getting the RICSA members ready for the festival hasn’t been cheap. About a thousand dollars has been spent on costumes and props, including a full-size wooden dollee — a traditional wedding carriage.

Now, less than a week away, the group has only today’s and Thursday’s rehearsal to fine-tune their 10-minute performance.

Split into four acts, the performance is an original story about a man who has a dream about three girls the night before his mother announces who he will marry. The man, played by Prem Signh, is first tempted by a sexy dancer in one of his dreams. The next female to get his attention while asleep is played by first-year RTA grad student Renu Jain, and has a lot in common with the western girl-next-door model. Finally, the soon-to-be-married man dreams about a girl dressed in traditional Indian attire. The next morning, when he wakes up, he discovers that his mother has picked up the same girl for him to marry, and everyone rejoices by doing — what else — dancing.

Unlike last year’s performance, which was set to Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal”, this year’s piece features mostly traditional Indian music mixed with modern dance beats.

“This year we wanted to go as traditional as possible,” said Jain, who choreographed two of the dance sequences.

“You’re more likely to win if you don’t have hip hop.”

Jain and four other RICSA members performed a Hollywood/Bollywood dance at this year’s Aatma, the south Asian cultural competition. Jain, who has been dancing since she was five years old, says Indian dancing is how she recognizes her culture.

“For all of us, what we have in common is that we love it,” she says. “My parents are from India. They want to pass this on to their kids.”

Six hours into Sunday’s rehearsal the dancers wear the effects of fatigue on their faces. One of the choreographers, Sindhu Senthilnathan, tries in vain to get everyone to line up for the movement.

“I’m losing my voice!” she complains, and reaches for a referee whistle, which she blows. Everyone stops what they’re doing and looks at her.

“Somebody take that whistle away from her,” someone says.

When everyone falls back into position, it doesn’t take long for things to unravel. Senthilnathan, an experienced dancer, knows without having to look who messed up, and looks disapprovingly at the male dancers. Prem Singh, easily the most skilled dancer of the bunch, pipes back:

“It’s not our fault, it’s the girls,” he says.

“No, it’s the guys,” the girls chant back.

It appears that Adit Chaudhry’s earlier prediction that the group will probably pull an all-nighter the Thursday before the festival might come true.

Still, some are confident that RICSA will separate from Ryerson’s losing tradition and return to campus as winners this weekend.

“Guys, we’re gonna win this. Yeah!”

 

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