Expand your range with the East-meets-West style.
In the last six seasons of So You Think You Can Dance, lively Bollywood numbers have shone as standout crowd-pleasers. Season 4 introduced the form with a pair of dances choreographed by Nakul Dev Mahajan. In one, the top 10 dancers, clad in elaborate, multicolored saris and veils, ponied through a smorgasbord of classic Indian gestures, cardio sequences, and swirling turns, set to exhilarating Indian drumming and singing. Season 5 brought the style back to great acclaim—Caitlin and Jason popped into intricate poses and tiny hops at a rapid-fire pace, punctuated by hip-hop and contemporary lifts—solidifying its place in the competition. Beyond the So You Think stage, the high-energy style electrified the first season of NBC’s TV show SMASH and was a hit on Dancing with the Stars.
Pictured at right: Monica Kapoor (center) in her work Rang de Basanti
Studios nationwide have added Bollywood classes to their schedules. For one, it’s a stamina-building workout. Plus the style, known for its intricate hand-and-eye gestures, fast footwork, jumps, and turns, enhances versatility.
East Meets West
According to Mahajan, who is the founder and director of NDM Productions and Studios in California, the term “Bollywood” is fairly new, referring to the extravagant cinematic dance created for the Hollywood-style film industry of Bombay (now Mumbai) in western India.
But dance has always been a large part of India’s spiritual and cultural fabric, specific region to region, says Hari Krishnan, a dance professor at Wesleyan University. Moreover, it’s an essential aspect of Indian cinema. “The movement facilitates the narratives and serves as exclamation points in the exotic, fantasy-land of the films,” he says.
When modern dance pioneers Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn helped introduce Eastern dance styles to the West in the 1920s, Americans were fascinated with the winding finger movements and gyrating hips. Eventually, the cross-pollination led to a variety of genres, with Bollywood dance emerging as a high-profile Indian export in the 1980s.
Though it’s infused with hip-hop and modern dance, Bollywood can be a window to more traditional dance: It’s a mix of contemporary styles—think bhangra—and classical Indian dances, like kathak and bharata natyam. “You can see the building blocks of Indian dance in Bollywood,” says Krishnan, who is also the artistic director of the Toronto-based dance company inDance. “It’s made for mass consumption, familiar to Easterners and Westerners alike. Think of Justin Bieber and Pavarotti—a parallel to Bollywood and classical Indian dance.” As long as it’s not assumed that Bollywood is the standard for all dance of South Asia, he continues, “it’s valuable and enjoyable.”
Bollywood isn’t codified; its combination of many regional forms as well as American styles leaves the details to the choreographers. Mahajan teaches a mix of Indian styles with accents of modern dance. Others may incorporate more hip-hop, and some teachers have even marketed their classes as fitness-focused, rather than pure dance.
Monica Kapoor is a Bollywood instructor at Steps on Broadway who also served as a consultant for the Bollywood routine in SMASH. Her classes include some familiar aspects, like a standard jazz warm-up with stretches, pliés, and tendus. They also include hand stretches and mudras, which are classical Indian gestures used in traditional forms to tell stories. “The anjali mudra, for example, is like the ‘namaste’ of a yoga class, with the palms and fingertips together, pointing towards the sky—a symbol of respect,” she says. “For the alapadma mudra, turn one palm to the sky, stretch out your fingers as much as possible, and stretch your little finger even farther, pulling it towards your wrist. Continue to fan and stretch out your other fingers as much as possible. This symbolizes a fully bloomed lotus flower.”
Working on mudras is part of what Kapoor calls a cram session: “I start at the top of the head and work to the feet, isolating each part of the body.” She even drills specific eye movements (often side-to-side to the corners of the eyes), called drishthi bheda.
Students are also introduced to a basic step called the single chaffa from the bhangra style of the Punjab region. “Double hop on your right foot while kicking your left foot forward,” Kapoor continues. Your arms—one raised above the head and the other just above the knee, pump twice in the same rhythm as your feet.
Krishnan, Mahajan, and Kapoor all note that intense coordination is required for the style. “The feet are doing one thing while the neck moves side to side and eyes are looking a certain way. On top of it all, you’re articulating your fingers and perhaps jumping,” says Mahajan.
The music in class is almost always upbeat, creating a warm, buzzing atmosphere. “At the end of the hour, I often hear, ‘I didn’t know the stamina it takes to last in Bollywood dance class!’ ” says Mahajan. “Bollywood is all go, go, go: The music starts off at a high-energy level and only rises. You have to match it.”
Dancers used to “pulling up” will also be challenged by Bollywood’s grounded nature. Releasing into pliés, squats, and lunges is crucial. “A lot of classical forms of Indian dance are based in a spiritual connection with mother Earth,” says Kapoor. “Everything is about being one with the ground.”
While SYTYCD alum Lauren Gottlieb and hip-hop choreographer Marty Kudelka are two American dancers who have found work in Bollywood movies (Gottlieb in Anybody Can Dance and Kudelka, co-choreographer of Chance Pe Dance), they’re not anomalies. “There’s a huge job market in Bollywood dance,” says choreographer Monica Kapoor. “Many dancers think Bollywood only employs Indians, but producers love an international cast! There are films shooting in New York and Chicago on a consistent basis. Enjoy the vibrant style—and get work, too!”
Lauren Kay is a writer and dancer in NYC.