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South Asian Americans are redefining traditionally heteronormative notions of gender and sexuality. Although the culture is still well on its way towards acceptance of LGBTQ+ identities, Fremont choreographer Amit Patel is bringing Desis — and the dance community as a whole — in the direction of progress.
Patel, who began learning Bollywood dance when was just 10 years old, is a professional choreographer for the Bliss Dance and Mona Khan companies. From performing at national events like the Indiaspora Inaugural Ball in Washington D.C to bagging a spot among the top 48 of America’s Got Talent out of 70,000 acts, Patel has played a major role in the representation of Desi dance on global platforms. His Youtube channel, where he regularly uploads choreography videos for both English and Hindi songs, boasts a whopping 184,000 subscribers. He was a part of Lilly Singh’s historic A Little Late With Lilly Singh’s premiere and a pioneer of Eastern Contemporary, a genre of Patel’s own making where he fuses South Asian and Western styles of dance. He has been featured in KQED’s series If Cities Could Dance.
Patel has been opening doors and bridging barriers for what seems like his whole career, and his latest “Bollywood Heels” projects, where he dances in heels to challenge heteronormative stereotypes, are opening up the dance space for LGBTQ+ community. In an interview with India Currents, Patel chronicles both his journey as a dancer and as a gay Indian American man.
“There are so many different ways to create social change, from working in politics to working in media,” Patel says. “So for me, when I finally decided to pursue [dance] full-time, what interested me the most was artwork..that helped push the conversation.”
A Fremont native, he reflected on his upbringing in a ‘tech’ family — one of the many South Asians attempting to reach their version of the American Dream in the Silicon Valley. Bollywood gave Patel the freedom to both connect with his culture as well as a liberating, cathartic mode of self-expression. His love for dance began with the Mona Khan Dance Company, when he joined Khan’s classes held in Milpitas’s India Community Center at eleven years old.
“Everyone has a different origin story,” says Patel. “There is a huge conversation about identity and what makes “you” you, and what Mona provided [in] her dance company was this opportunity to explore our roots without having to give up the daily things that made us American.”
It was with Khan’s dance company that Patel learned to fuse Indian music with contemporary techniques, creating the medleys that lie at the heart of the Eastern Contemporary genre. With Eastern Contemporary, Patel helped create that ‘happy’, welcoming space for cultural diffusion in dance. With “Bollywood Heels”, his blend of Kathak and Jazz, he aspires to do the same — this time, for dancers of all genders and sexualities. Patel was inspired to initiate change after coming to terms with Bollywood’s internalized heteronormativity.
“As a kid watching Bollywood, I didn’t necessarily question Bollywood,” Patel told KQED Arts, reflecting on his childhood experiences. “All those traditional gender roles and expectations of a male dancer, that I would also be placed in. I didn’t necessarily resonate with that.”
Bollywood Heels seeks to remove these expectations in dance, allowing artists to unabashedly express who they are.
“I just intended to create a space where any queer person that wants to come can explore this movement without judgement,” Patel mentions in the same interview with KQED Arts. “And, also tie that in with culture, because in our South Asian community, that never existed.”
Kanchan Naik is a senior at the Quarry Lane School in Dublin, California. She is the 2019-2020 Teen Poet Laureate for the City of Pleasanton, as well as the Director of Media Outreach for youth nonprofit Break the Outbreak. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of her school newspaper, The Roar. Her work appears in the Apprentice Writer, Polyphony Lit, Brown Girl Magazine, Parallax Literary Magazine, among many others.