In the 4th grade, I attended a Bollywood dance class for the first time. My mom had signed me up, and the goal was for me to do something outside of my school and home life. “Physical activity is good for you! It’s good to have outside activities,” she would say.
To my surprise, class was in the garage of a South Indian woman in my neighborhood, in Morrisville, North Carolina. Her studio was composed of gray walls, odd mats made of red and blue styrofoam puzzles, and an elliptical machine.
Never before had I been deeply involved in something both recreational and cultural. I had entered an unfamiliar space, and I feared being an inept dancer, and that my ineptitude would somehow mean that I wasn’t “good enough” at being Indian.
Being born and raised 8,000 miles from my extended family in India has caused me to feel disconnected from my homeland ever since I was little. I worried that I wasn’t Indian enough to fit in with my relatives.
I have to rely on Skype and Facetime to see them, and my limited ability to speak Hindi made these conversations difficult. We would exchange greetings and ask each other how we were doing. Then there would be an awkward silence as I waited to be rescued by my parents.
I yearned to feel a sense of attachment to India, despite the linguistic and physical distance that limited my access. Watching Bollywood movies helped fill in the gap.
I vividly remember watching Ra.One, a Bollywood superhero film, when I was in kindergarten. Its festive songs and dances, cheap but charming CGI, and theme of good vs. evil captivated me. The music was entirely sung in Hindi, and I suddenly felt closer to the language.
From then on, in order to fill the cultural gap that I felt, I looked to the colorful and vibrant pictures that Bollywood movies painted for me.
I adored these films, but I never imagined being able to do the complex moves that professional actors and actresses performed.
Tempo: Falling and Friendship
Soon after entering the garage, I met the 10 or so other kids that I would be dancing with, all of whom were around my age. We lived in the same neighborhood, and I was well acquainted with some of them, but there were many I didn’t know. After greetings and introductions, our instructor told us that the song we would be dancing to was “Ravana” from the Telugu-language Indian film Jai Lava Kusa.
The song was fast, aggressive, and confident. Listening to it for the first time made me feel powerful and strong, almost like the rakshasa (a kind of demon in Hindu mythology) Ravana himself. Yet trying to follow the choreography was a completely different experience.
Dance was hard. I was unathletic and chubby, and struggled to grasp some of the moves. It was humbling and a bit demotivating, trying to bounce off of squats repeatedly only to fall back on my butt, or falling behind when introduced to the bhangra-like steps that required high-knee raises and constant energy output.
I couldn’t keep up, and I ended up feeling isolated and incapable. But my fellow dancers supported me as many times as I fell.
When I was scolded for doing a move improperly by the teacher, they assured me that I was doing my best, and many even volunteered to help me learn. Knowing that they had faith in me pushed me to keep on dancing.
One piece of choreography was especially difficult for me to learn. It required me to squat on my toes and bounce back up, repeatedly, in quick succession. The move is not too hard for me now, but back then I would often lose balance as I tried to squat or simply be unable to keep up with the tempo.
My instructor noticed that I was struggling and, during one break, she had one of my peers tutor me. He was much more fit and athletic than me, and he could have easily whined about it, but instead he helped me without complaint. I learned some tips and tricks from him and was able to complete the move more successfully.
Over time I became better at dancing. Definitely not perfect, but better. My fellow dancers did too. Some were athletically gifted, with the necessary stamina for each practice, while others were like me, struggling to keep up, but we all recognized each other as a team and none of us wanted the others to feel disheartened.
A strong bond grew between all of us and, surprisingly, dance became more fun! I enjoyed sweating buckets of water only if I was sweating with my friends, and I enjoyed feeling completely exhausted at the end of the day when my friends were exhausted next to me.
Dancing with other South Asian kids, many of whom were second-generation like me, helped me feel less isolated. My anxieties shrank, and a feeling of excitement grew inside me until I didn’t completely fear failure or being an incompetent Indian kid.
We were scheduled to perform at TATA Night, a cultural event hosted by a South Indian organization in our community, about four months after our first class. The performance was always in the back of our minds, making each practice important.
Eventually the promised day came, and I arrived in a white robe-like costume with white harem pants, my hair and makeup done to resemble the Indian demon Ravana. The hall was packed with audience members eating food and socializing.
The program began, and we went up on stage. Seeing an entire sea of people anticipating our performance was mesmerizing. I was filled with an array of emotions: anxiety about botching the choreography on stage, but also excitement and confidence.
Then the music kicked in, and adrenaline rushed through my limbs. I slipped up a few times, but no amount of mistakes was going to stop my body from moving. I felt how I had always imagined it felt to be a dancer on the big screen, valiant and powerful, as I moved with my friends like the stars and heroes of the movies we looked up to.
The booming sound of applause at the end told me that the crowd loved it! Hearing their satisfaction and the cheers of my peers, teacher, and family was validating, and I realized that the hours of practice I put in and the connections I made along the way had shortened the distance between me and my culture.
Afterwards, my parents shared videos of my performance with my family in India and, during our next Facetime call, they sang my praises. Even if I couldn’t hold a conversation past a couple sentences, just hearing them be proud of my dancing gave me intense gratification for the work I had put in, and helped me gain a sense of belonging in my family.