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Folks, I did not come to dance. Armed with a notebook, and a pen, your intrepid reporter was poised at the edge of the crowd ready to observe and faithfully record the proceedings. It was the third Saturday of the month and people were moving their shoulders like Punjabi farmers: or at least trying to, at the dance club Rickshaw Stop in San Francisco. This was a night of Non-Stop Bhangra, headed up by the Non-Stop Bhangra Collective, populated by a truly multi-racial crowd with varying degrees of bhangra expertise but uniformly high enthusiasm. A man playing the dhol was wandering through the crowd, picking out a beat in the music and embellishing it, and the dancers onstage performed a choreographed routine, moving quickly and crisply, looking colorful.
For the lucky people of New York City DJ Rehka has been holding it down since 1997 with Basement Bhangra, a monthly event that gives desis and non-desis alike the chance to shake what they’re made of to a ground-breaking mix of hip-hop and bhangra. Basement Bhangra has been around so long it’s practically an institution, and for a while there was nothing similar in the Bay Area to provide a space for people who just wanted to dance to the beat of the dhol.
Enter the Non-Stop Bhangra Collective, which celebrated its fifth birthday during October of this year, coinciding with Diwali. “How do you celebrate Diwali in a club?” asked co-founder Vicki Verk to the crowd. She had her long hair in a braid, and wore a white choli and long white skirt with a colorful dupatta wrapped around her torso, and had one of those long strands of gold in the part of her hair that terminated with a jewel between her eyebrows. The lights went off, and the Non-Stop dancers stood in a line on the stage holding candles. “To me, Diwali is all about love, about being grateful. So let’s just take a moment to think about what we’re grateful for.”
Non-Stop Bhangra(NSB) was started as a celebration on the first anniversary for DholRhythms, a dance troupe founded by Verk and Suman Raj, solidified with the music of DJ Jimmy Love. The three were united by a love for the energy of bhangra: “Suman and I had always talked about doing something that would bring together a community through something positive and beautiful that will help people’s spirits and uplift them,” says Verk. “We wanted to connect people and also loved music and dance. Jimmy loved the vibrant energy of bhangra and really wanted to help share the sound with people.” From there the troupe and the event steadily gained momentum. To Verk, it’s pretty clear why. “We believe music and dance are gifts to mankind. That’s why they are universal languages. Every culture celebrates with music and dance. The energy behind music connects people regardless of where it comes from and what it sounds like.” Verk points to NSB’s interactivity, which blurs the line between performer and participant. “Everyone takes part; that’s what makes NSB what it is; the staff, the performers, us promoters, our audience. NSB guests are not just passive audience members, they are active participants in the experience. We share the history of this dance and music and then teach them basic dance steps, followed by performances and live sets, then giving them the space to dance together. Not only are they learning about a different culture but they are also getting to try something new in a very safe, fun, positive, and joyful way with so many different kinds of people.”
Who thought I would be celebrating Diwali in a club, surrounded by Punjabis, Gujaratis, Fijians, Koreans, Phillipinos, Germans, and African-Americans? With a cry, the dhol player started up again. And so much for journalistic objectivity. There was nothing I could do but dance.
For more information on Non-Stop Bhangra and details on upcoming events, check out http://nonstopbhangra.blogspot.com.
Shruti Swamy is working toward her Masters in Fine Arts in fiction at San Francisco State University.