Historically a harvest folk dance from the Punjab region in India, bhangra has stormed the club scene in England, Canada, and the United States. El Rio, a hip nightclub in the Mission district of San Francisco, plays a number of bhangra songs on Friday nights, transforming the floor into a raucous balle-balle gathering. Traditionally comprised of the dhol (drum) and boliyaan (Punjabi poems), bhangra music has found its way into the recording studios of mainstream artists such as Britney Spears, Jay-Z, Missy Elliot, and even Jennifer Lopez.
The revival of bhangra may not seem all that surprising given the growing population of South Asians in the United States (over 2 million according to the 2000 census). They have brought along with them their food, culture, and language. Besides, this does seem to be the time for Indian payback for centuries of Western influence; chai and curry, yoga and nirvana, call centers and software development, are all forms of India’s colonization of the Western world. Bhangra’s popularity, therefore, comes as no major shock. What is surprising, though, is its advent into the fitness world. From its earthy roots as a celebratory harvest dance, it is now being touted as an intense cardio workout and a viable alternative to aerobics.
Bhangra’s popularity is in its infectious and lively beat. “The beat is such that it compels one to move,” says Sarina Jain of Masala Dance & Fitness Inc. Jain, a certified fitness instructor, began teaching her Masala Bhangra Workout as a cardiovascular exercise routine in Los Angeles five years ago. “It is so high energy,” Jain continues, “and there are no vigorous rules to follow as with other dance forms, allowing people to easily pick up the steps. The music is uplifting—
it makes you want to move no matter what your mood. You have so much fun dancing that you don’t realize what a great workout it is.”
Jain’s class is extremely fast-paced, starting with the basic step and adding on six different moves. She breaks down each move—adding legs, arms, and shoulders one after another. Some of the moves are modernized “to make the dance accessible to non-desis,” Jain says. The class ends with a high-intensity jam session that gets the adrenaline pumping and endorphins gushing.
The Masala Bhangra Workout burns approximately 500 calories during each session. The hour goes by surprisingly fast. The monotony of indoor cardio exercising disappears, and participants are surprised at their enjoyment level.
Erla Duana, a longtime student of Jain says, “Sometimes, when working out, one can easily get bored and fall into a slump. However, with the Masala Bhangra Workout’s combination of music, cultural enrichment, and intense total body workout, I never get bored but instead look forward to going to class. And when you are as excited about your workout as I am, you are guaranteed to get optimal results.”
Another woman comes to the class with a heart rate monitor to measure the benefits. “I was having so much fun that I didn’t think I was really working out,” she says. “But then I checked my monitor and saw that my heart rate was up. It’s much better than taking a step class or walking on the treadmill.”
An older participant adds, “Not only is it fun, but it has less impact on your joints … there is no fear of hurting yourself.”
For the South Asian population, these bhangra classes are slowly becoming fitness options. Vicki Virk of dholrhythms, a Bay Area-based studio, has taught numerous classes and workshops for the South Asian population, from bhangra workouts at the India Community Center in Milpitas to regular classes in Berkeley and San Francisco. She also conducts numerous workshops and performs at various ethnic festivals throughout Northern California.
Virk’s classes have generated a lot of interest among the mainstream community, though recently there is increased participation from South Asians. “I initially had more non-desis in my classes. Desis feel that bhangra is in their blood, and that they don’t need classes. Now, more and more desis are taking my class because they are pleasantly surprised at the way bhangra can be broken down into steps. Even if they know how to dance to bhangra, they are still learning something new. One girl comes to my Saturday class in Berkeley from as far away as Santa Rosa (60 miles north of Berkeley). Another group of desi women come each week regularly. And they are coming to my class because they realize that along with the fun and socializing they are also burning off calories.”
Vanita Chhatpar, a newcomer to the Bay Area, finds Virk’s class “so much fun plus a great workout. I just moved out here from New Jersey and didn’t know anybody. I found it [class] a great way to meet people.”
Amarjit Sahota, who just moved from London has a similar experience. “The diversity of people who attend has been a pleasant surprise. They are a great bunch. I always walk out smiling and sweating. Not many exercises classes can offer that,” he says.
The South Asian contingent, it appears, first attend Virk’s classes out of a desire to learn or enjoy bhangra. Khuzema Hussain, who attends the class at the Bodytonic Health Club & Spa in San Francisco, says, “I first tried out Vicki’s class simply because it is bhangra. I’m desi and never learned it in college, though I would see it around me. I figured that now would be a good time.” But they continue to come back for not just the bhangra, but also the workout. Shaleen Kumar started attending these classes because she had “two left hips.” She now continues each week because the class is “uplifting, fun, a great workout, and it makes me sweat.”
Virk’s philosophy has generated a loyal following. “I want my students to feel like they’ve achieved something.” She arranges forums for her students to perform in a supportive and non-competitive environment. Additionally, she customizes her classes for each audience. Her workshop at the Senior Center in Sunnyvale is customized for an elderly population. “I brought down the intensity by a couple notches. You should’ve seen the uncles and aunties dancing away. They were having so much fun, and they are keeping fit.”
Jain, who has also produced three fitness DVDs, comments on the increased interest among South Asians, “Desis are now realizing the benefits of working out. Recent studies report Indians as being at high risk for heart disease and diabetes, both preventable with regular exercise and a healthy diet. As a result, our people are taking better care of themselves. They are working out more—going to the gym, participating in recreational sports, and the like. Now more desis are attending my bhangra class. Even my mom is a convert; she works out to my Masala Bhangra DVD.”
Sheila Jain (Sarina Jain’s sister), a public health professional who teaches the Masala Bhangra Workout at Crunch in San Francisco, is convinced that bhangra presents a great opportunity for getting South Asians back in shape. “Historically, we are not a going-to-the-gym type of culture. We have to look for more culturally appropriate alternatives to the gym. Cultural dance, like bhangra, I believe, is one of those viable alternatives.”
This new breed of bhangra, the fitness dance, has found a significant niche. Both Jain and Virk are expanding their operations; Virk has the San Francisco Bay Area covered, while Jain along with two other trained instructors teaches in New York, Los Angles, and San Francisco. Meanwhile, other similar classes have popped up all over—Veera Mahajan is the Bhangra Aerobics queen in the Detroit area; Honey Kalaria shows Londoners how to work out to Bollywood and bhangra tunes; and Brown University offers a hip-hop bhangra workout class to its students.
Despite its newfound popularity on the exercise floor, bhangra may never become as widespread as yoga. But it has definitely made its mark on fitness centers across the country … and on me. The day after my Masala Bhangra Workout, I wake up with aching gluts, quads, and calves. But it’s all worth it. I am a new convert, and I’m going to dance myself into becoming a lean, mean bhangra machine.
Rinoti Amin works at Narika, a Berkeley-based domestic violence agency. When not working, she finds innovative ways of sweating, be it in a dance class or in a remote desert with a heavy backpack.
FROM FARMLANDS TO NIGHTCLUBS
Bhangra, the exuberant Punjabi folk dance, can be traced back to the 14th century, though some speculate that it originated during the invasion of Alexander the Great in 300 B.C. Farmers in the wheat fields of Punjab (the fertile region that is now divided between India and Pakistan) danced and sang folk songs in order to pass time while working. The movements are, thus, imitations of fieldwork—plowing, sowing, and harvesting.
Over time bhangra became an essential component of the harvest festival of Baisakhi. Music was incorporated; instruments included the dhol that provided an energetic beat, along with chimtas, tumbi (single-string instrument), and high-spirited clapping. Vocals included not only pastoral poems, but also nonsensical phrases like “hey hey hey,” “balle-balle” and “hey arippa.”
It wasn’t long before this dance and music became synonymous with celebrating; it became an integral part of any major occasion—weddings, anniversaries, parties—and was embraced by people of different class and caste. Predominantly performed by men at first, bhangra later wholeheartedly included women as well.
As Punjabis migrated to different parts of the world (especially after the violence that followed the Partition where Punjab was divided between India and Pakistan), they took along with them this celebratory dance. A great number of Punjabis settled down in England, and in the 1970s and 1980s this diaspora brought about the revival of bhangra. The dance and music moved from ethnic venues to the British dance clubs. Birmingham and Southall in England were hubs of the underground bhangra movement, and traditional songs were mixed with other music genres against the backdrop of western drums and synthesizers.
In the 1990s bhangra music became popularized and legitimized through its various blends and flavors. The traditional music was still in style, thanks to the efforts of artists such as Jazzy Bains, Bhinda Jatt, and Balwinder Safri. But remixes were already on their way. Bally Sagoo had unleashed his Dil Cheez and was on his way to becoming a household name in England. Daler Mehndi introduced “Bhangra-Pop” that started a craze across India and among South Asians elsewhere. New desi artists started blending the traditional beats with other contemporary genres such as hip-hop, reggae, house, rap, and R&B.;
Today, mainstream artists such as Dr Dre, Jay-Z, Missy Elliot, Britney Spears, Craig David, Ricky Martin, and Jennifer Lopez are adding a bhangra flavor to their mix, taking bhangra music to new heights. Crossover movies such as Monsoon Wedding and Bend it Like Beckham, and inter-college bhangra competitions have brought about a surge of interest in the dance as well. Bhangra moves can usually be found in nightclubs, music videos and even aerobic classes. No longer do you have to hold your own private party for some balle-balle fun; all you have to do is drop by your local dance club. The DJ is sure to have at least one bhangra song.
Bhangra Workout Classes
Detroit/Rochester: (248) 961-3322
San Francisco: (415) 440-1800
Berkeley: (510) 525-5099
Walnut Creek: (925) 939-4802
India Community Center
Bhangra and Bollywood workout
Masala Dance & Fitness, Inc.
Los Angeles: (949) 737-6882
New York: 1-877-4-MASALA
San Francisco: (415) 346-1094
Masala Bhangra Workout Vol. 1, 2, 3
Fitness for Beginners (Bellydancing)
Bhangra Folk Dance Classes
Ghungroo Folk Dance Academy
Berkeley, Dublin, Fremont, Marin
Vicki Virk’s Top 10 Bhangra Workout Songs
1. Naag; Singer: Jazzy Bains
2. Jawani; Singer: Jazzy Bains
3. Yaar Bolda; Singer: Surjit Singh Bindrakhia
4. Jatt Di Pasand; Singer: Surjit Singh Bindrakhia
5. Nachia Karo; Singer: K.S. Makhan
6. Chan Mere Makhna; Singer: Safri Boyz
7. Haaye Sohniye; Singer: Hans Raj Hans
8. Dhol Jageero Da; Singer: Master Salim
9. Nain Preeto De; Singer: Surinder Singh Shinda
10 Dhol Panjabian Da; Singer: Herbie Sahara