Joti Singh, the 29-year-old San Francisco-based dancer, blends her Punjabi roots with her passion for West African dance, but she doesn’t like to describe her work as a strict fusion of the two. Singh, the founder and choreographer of Duniya Dance Company, describes her festive, propulsive brand of dance as drawing more strongly from her training in bhangra. “Because of my roots, bhangra has a stronger influence than the West African dance,” she says, “but of course, the West African dance is naturally going to be a part of [how I express myself] … there is also a lot of flexibility: with a traditional African movement, you can shake your shoulders [in a certain way], and it becomes bhangra.”
Of course, Singh’s signature maximum-energy style doesn’t “claim to be 100 percent authentic,” she says. “It comes just as much from my personal aesthetic, what moves me, as it does from life experiences and the dance that has influenced me.”
Singh’s exposure to bhangra—the celebratory traditional dance of Punjab—started when she was a child growing up in the Atlanta area. “Atlanta as a city is really spread out, but there was still a tightly knit Punjabi community,” she remembers. Singh developed a love for music and dance early in life and began dancing bhangra on a weekly basis as a child. Some of her favorite memories come from her experience of performing annually in the city’s Vaisakhi festival, the traditional Punjabi harvest festival that marks the beginning of a new solar year. As a young girl, Singh immediately found her stride in bhangra’s life-affirming idiom, but her parents also put her in ballet. “I think it was their way of acknowledging my American roots, but I didn’t get too far with ballet because I didn’t like it very much,” Singh laughingly admits.
As an adolescent, Singh didn’t dance much; she would rediscover her old passion while an undergraduate at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Because Reed enforces a strict physical education requirement, Singh found herself in a West African dance class, and her obsession with dance was resuscitated. Part of her attraction to the highly kinetic dance form was its sheer accessibility. “I’ve never felt that I or my dancers didn’t have the right body types to do the dance,” she says. “While in western culture, larger bodies may not be correlated with dancers’ bodies, in many parts of West Africa, you will customarily see a full, luscious woman dancing … It’s more about how you use your body. It’s a celebration, so there is a sense of openness, and there is room for everybody.”
In 2003, Singh traveled to Guinea for three months with her teacher, choreographer and West African dance veteran, Moustapha Bangoura. It was a formative experience that would stay with her for years. She eventually went on to pursue a master’s in South Asian Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, but dance was never far from her heart or mind. Then, in 2006, she went back to Africa. “I felt like I was on a quest to find out whether or not I wanted to make dance my primary career, and on that trip, all the signs seemed to be telling me yes!” Singh recalls. At the time, she’d already been teaching bhangra, so it was natural for her to “return to [her] roots.”
In April 2007, Duniya Dance Company was formed; it is currently comprised of four dancers, including Singh’s former students. The company finds inspiration in everything from bhangra to modern hip-hop dance. Considering that Singh always found traditional western dance forms like ballet to be too restraining, Duniya’s style tends to be more rapid and robust. “I’m excited about using every ounce of energy in my dance,” says Singh. “There is a totality to the way we dance that also comes from the fact that each dancer looks different from the next one while she is doing the movement.” Singh’s philosophy, while maintaining itself in rigorous training, is that dance only comes alive through the different bodies that are practicing it, as opposed to the rigid ideas about correct form. “I think it’s much more interesting to see how these different bodies interpret the movement; that variety is so much more vibrant than strict synchronization or uniformity.”
While Duniya quickly became in demand at cultural or corporate events that required bhangra dancers, Singh always had a vision to create a larger show that wouldn’t necessarily be confined to one genre. Then, in February 2008, Singh discovered that she’d landed an artist residency at San Francisco collaborative dance space CounterPULSE, which is known for cultivating choreographers and giving them platforms to reach large, diverse audiences. This was where Singh’s landmark dance piece, “Dhoom Dhamaka,” (which translates roughly to “Shock and Awe”) was born.
The piece, which premiered to much acclaim in September, was inspired by Singh’s friend Boynarr Sow, a Senegalese drummer who was sent to Guantanamo Bay by the Department of Homeland Security, as a suspected terrorist. “My way of processing that experience was to create choreography that would be centered around it,” she explains. “The goal wasn’t necessarily to tell his specific story, as there wasn’t a narrative in the piece, but it was very important for me to have him involved in some way.”
Singh’s dynamic choreography was accompanied by Sow performing on the djembe (a West African drum), as well as a chaotic video piece riddled with images such as reenactments in a Guantanamo cell and clips from the recent Hollywood comedy Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay. At turns grim, vibrant, hopeful, and poignant, the performance was Singh’s way of examining how post-9/11 events have affected both her and those in her circle. And, as it was Singh’s first major venture as a choreographer, it was also a valuable learning experience. “It enabled me to trust myself and my vision that much more. I want to connect to my audiences but at a certain point, you need to go with what you believe in. It’s an experience I’ll carry into all my future artistic endeavors.”
Theatre director and creative consultant, Ellen Sebastian Chang, worked with Singh to help the young choreographer refine her directorial skills while she was developing “Dhoom Dhamaka” at CounterPULSE. “I was impressed with her ability to absorb creative information so quickly and own it,” Chang says. “I knew from that first meeting that her show was going to rock the rafters, and it did. She is a dancer and choreographer who understands the contradictions of the world we live in.”
Today, Singh continues to teach in both San Francisco and Berkeley. She is also playing with a few ideas for new choreography, such as a piece about the Punjabi-Mexican community of Imperial Valley in southern California. Her natural fascination with the fluidity of ethnicity and culture propelled her interest in the topic. “In the early 20th century, there was an influx of Sikh immigrants into the area. They couldn’t always bring their families over, so they married Mexican women and pretty much became outcasts in the community,” Singh explains. While she is still fleshing out details around the piece, her vision will likely be a collaborative one that will include a traditional Mexican folklorico dancer and possibly some additional multimedia work that will serve to tell the stories of the community.
While Singh doesn’t think of her choreography as being overtly political, she views her art form as inherently political. “Bhangra was originally a dance for men, so there is something subversive about a company of female bhangra dancers,” she explains. “Also, blending the African and Indian elements is very symbolic. You don’t usually see these two groups coming together in music and dance, but I am interested in going beyond that sense of separation. I think it is important in this time to have people of all different backgrounds come together, and because it is shared by all cultures, dance can be a very valuable starting point for this.”
Nirmala Nataraj is a critic, playwright, producer, poet, creative nonfiction writer, and erstwhile filmmaker. She has written for publications including ArtWeek, San Francisco Weekly, Bitch: A Feminist Response to Popular Culture, and ColorLines. She is also an active community arts organizer and a former board member/curatorial committee member of San Francisco’s Kearny Street Workshop, the nation’s oldest multidisciplinary Asian American arts organization.