Getting into shape, Bollywood style

Simon Fraser University students can now take bhangra dancing for credit.Introduction to Popular Dance is a new course offered at Simon Fraser University’s new School for the Contemporary Arts at the Woodward’s building in downtown Vancouver.It is the first bhangra course for credit in Canada, and probably North America, instructor Raakhi Sinha said.In recent years, the focus on dance as a popular pastime and form of exercise has skyrocketed.Dance/fitness fusion classes such as Zumba, Afro’robics, burlesque and Latin dance fitness have proliferated, and dance forms such as bhangra and salsa that allow beginners to feel successful without years of training are increasingly popular.Indeed, the new bhangra course is already oversubscribed, with 52 students coming from a variety of faculties ranging from dance to business and sciences.”For some, I think this is the first dance class they’ve ever taken,” Sinha said.Sinha is teaching both traditional bhangra and modern incarnations of the dance, which include cheerleading stunts and “Bollywood charisma.” The course exam will be a performance.”We made sure to catalogue a wealth of knowledge so it’s tangible,” Sinha said.”Students will take away not just a party dance, but a culture of dance music and history. Dance is our tool for cultural understanding in this course.”Bhangra is not only a very accessible dance that even an absolute beginner can have fun with, it appeals to both genders, has a very strong presence in Vancouver and has surprisingly strong connections with hip hop and First Nations dance, said Sinha who, with business partner Gurpreet Sian, owns the theatre dance company South Asian Arts.Just as First Nations dance is earthy, so is bhangra, which originated from farmers adapting movements they made in the crop fields.”Hip hop is very low, wide-set with lots of energy and that’s where we see the overlap,” Sinha said.”We like to explain that to them and use that as the tool to say, as different as we all are, we also have a lot of things in common.”In the past five years, Sinha and Sian have taught more than 30,000 children in B.C.’s school system through the Art-Starts touring program.Sinha, born in Canada of Indian parents, fell in love with bhangra when she and Sian joined the SFU Bhangra team 10 years ago and travelled the world to compete.These days “all major cities in North America have a bhangra competition and they are wild,” Sinha said.”It’s intense. The dancers, they practise every day. In some competitions, you have to have spirit squads: It counts how many people you can drum up to come to the show and scream for you.”There are two major competitions each year in Vancouver. One competition, Bhangra Idols, coming up Oct. 10 at the Red Robinson Show Theatre, is expected to attract at least 10 local teams of 10 to 16 dancers, Sinha said.”You have to have traditionality, creativity, stunts. Charisma is a really big deal. You do one dance and there’s a time limit, and you lose marks if you go even one second over.”The idea for the SFU credit course all started when Sinha and Sian did a bhangra workshop for one of Prof. Henry Daniel’s SFU contemporary arts classes.”The kids had so much fun, we realized there was such a wealth of material and we ran out of time in the class,” Sinha said.”He said, ’Wouldn’t it be cool if we could have something like this in the new building we’re opening up in September?’”

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