By Sherri Ahern
What can I say, it’s hard being a bi-racial, bi-cultural kid growing up in a country that neither of your parents’ families belonged to. Throughout my life, I have had to grapple with growing away from my cultures and trying to be more American, and recovering my cultures and revisiting what they mean to me and how I live my life. My mother is from Guyana, with her people originally coming from India some generations ago. Though Guyana is a South American country, it is on the northern side of the continent and therefore is in the realm of the Caribbean; my family identifies with Caribbean culture, food, and manner of speaking. Also, Indian culture has its influence somewhat in the way Guyanese people dress and religious ceremonies they practice. On the other hand, my father is from Brooklyn, New York, with his family’s roots originally in Cork, Ireland, generations ago. My parents met when my mother immigrated to New York. They married and moved to Miami. That’s where my story starts.
Throughout my life there has been both a cultural push and pull. My father has always been interested in his family’s roots, name, and traditions. We love to talk about the original spelling of or last name, and I tell him about how wonderful it was to visit and write poetry about Cork. Conversely, my mother prefers I do not participate in cultural events or dress, and she genuinely has no interest in her family’s roots or the maintenance of her original culture in her new country. Truthfully, most of my research into my mom’s culture has been external from her guidance and has either been self-researched or at the encouragement of my dad.
Although my mother does not necessarily adhere to her own culture’s way of life, the Guyanese/Indian social stigmas are always in full swing. It is very important to my mom that I have long hair, be very thin, and keep my trap shut at family gatherings: I am and do none of those things. But because of that, when the prospect of taking a Bollywood Indian dance class came about, my mom encouraged me to take the class, not for the cultural significance, but rather the physical one: If I dance I will lose weight. At first, that is all it was, but I quickly realized that taking a Bollywood dance class in Miami with other students who were and were not of Indian descent would be a life-changing and eye-opening experience both intro- and extrospecively. It should be noted that I make very little distinction between Bollywood dance and Indian dance, as my experience with the two cannot be separated. I will use the terms interchangeably.
First, I will begin with the lifespring of the class, the creator, owner, and choreographer, Geeta. She is truly the glue that holds our group together. She is a formally trained dancer from India who came to America after her schooling and decided to stay here. It is astonishing to me that I take classes with someone who has been taught the original material in its country of origin! Geeta tries her hardest to obtain our costumes from craftspeople in India, so they are authentic and good quality. We use these costumes in dance competitions and shows around Florida, to spread the joy and understanding of Indian dance.
Along with just dancing for fun and to entertain people, we also have some cultural and social responsibilities that reach beyond just the physical act of dancing because we dance to music that has a cultural significance. For example, we love to dance to Punjabi music, from the Punjab region of India, which is known for their Sikh religion, where you will often see men wearing turbans. This style of dance is called the Bhangra. Thus, when we dance to this type of music, we try to represent the Punjabi people as best as we can because it is their cultural dance. We dress as closely as we can to what is in fashion in Punjab, and if we have men dancing with us, they will wear turbans. Even though Geeta has the artistic freedom to choreograph her own dances however she wants, she will include Bhangra into Punjabi songs because she has a great respect for Indian culture. She is also very strict that our costumes remain culturally relevant, even down to their hems, since in our performances, we are not only representing our instructor and ourselves, we are also representing the places that we are dancing about.
On a related note, I have also seen very disrespectful Indian dance performances, which always make me feel uneasy. For example, at a burlesque show once, I witnessed a burlesque/Indian fusion dance. Now, this is not to say that the dancer was not trying to push the boundaries of what is acceptable and trying to form a new blend of genres, but in my very humble opinion, I found it garish and culturally unsound. The burlesque dancer used an Indian song and wore a mix of Indian and Middle Eastern costumes and incorporated no identifiable traditional dance gestures. This caused me to question and reevaluate why and how I do my own dancing. Perhaps it is our outlooks and goals that differ: the burlesque dancer aims to titillate with the exotic and sparkly, while I try to spread the beauty, relevance, and culture with my dancing. And in the grand scheme of things, we can both be successful.
Similarly, there is a gap between what people perceive is Indian dance versus what it really is. Perhaps my gripe with the burlesque version of Indian dance is that people will wrongly associate that with what traditional Indian dance is. I have been asked, nay told, many times that what I dance to is called “belly dancing.” I respectfully correct people and explain what I do and how it is different. I respect the art, tradition, and history of belly dancing, but it is something entirely different. I think that is something we encounter a lot in Miami; I am guilty of it myself: Calling Vietnamese food Thai food, or confusing a niqab with a hijab. However, I always take a moment of confusion or ignorance to educate, and I always hope others do the same for me.
Unfortunately, within the current political climate or our global community, a mix up of Asian and Middle Eastern cultures can make someone completely dismiss anything you are trying to say. There is a simultaneous fascination, dramatization, and hatred of brown people. Inevitably, questions come up such as, “Ladies are allowed to dance over there?” or “Aren’t you showing too much skin to be traditional?” Again, I use these opportunities to educate, not only about my own culture, but what I have studied of others as well. It is better to nip these issues in the bud than have incidences like one recently where a white man in Kansas shot two Indian immigrant engineers, one of whom he killed, while yelling at them to get out of his country. It is unclear whether the shooter thought the men were Middle Eastern, or he just did not like immigrants in general, but this boils down to a man shooting two young men because they did not share the same skin color as him and therefore are wrong and evil. Ironic. All of this is unfortunate and affects other facets of life, right down to the attitudes of audiences who come to or choose not to come to our shows because of their understanding or lack of understanding of Indian culture.
There are also socio-political issues to think about when one does cultural activities while living in a first-world nation. I always do keep in mind how fortunate I am to have access to different cultural activities. In Miami, there are so many different classes to take and festivals/art shows/theatre events/etc. to attend that I’m sure many other places do not have. I’m fortunate enough to be able to explore one of my cultures through dance.
However, this is different for people who are not of Indian descent, like the majority of my dance mates who are of other various backgrounds. The questions of cultural participation over cultural appropriation arise. Cultural appropriation happens when one culture uses parts of another culture. For example, recently in the media, we have seen arguments over whether white Americans can wear Native American feathered headdresses to music festivals in good taste or not. Cultural participation, on the other hand, is more of an appreciation of other cultures in the form of attending cultural events or even just doing simple research on a culture you are interested in. For instance, one may attend a German Oktoberfest to learn more about German culture and participate among other revelers.
To view what my dance instructor Geeta does as cultural appropriation is a tough rope to balance on. On the one hand, she is Indian herself and is trained in her art. She is not copying her dances off of what she sees on TV or the internet — she understands what each dance move signifies and teaches them to us as such. She also translates all of our songs for us so we understand what we are dancing to and why. As mentioned before, Geeta also tries to fill her dances with authentic costuming and props. I think the argument can be made that on her end of the bargain, Geeta is a proponent for cultural participation: she wants her students and audience to have an authentic experience, not a shoddy facsimile. To contrast this, we can look at it from another angle, the standpoint of the student instead of the teacher. Many of my fellow students, including myself, are genuinely interested in the cultural significance of what we do. One of my dance mates, who is Venezuelan-American, even speaks some Hindi and is a really big Bollywood film buff. The majority of us want to know how to properly achieve the perfect mudra (or hand gesture), and we want to know what the singers are singing about so we can have the proper facial expressions when we dance to the songs. One small thing that we do in class which has a big impact on mood and spiritual connection is the namascar before every practice, rehearsal, and performance. This is a set of words and gestures that we each perform individually to help us prepare for dance. Personally, this helps me prepare on a spiritual level as well as a mental level: I am opening myself up to accept my culture and put forth my most authentic representation of it through dance, and I am mentally preparing myself to be accepting of my instructions. All of these elements are a part of the greater realization and representation of Indian dance.
However, this is unfortunately not always the case. There have been students I’ve known who have wanted to take the class only to be able to wear pretty clothes and be able to jump around on stage in front of an audience, and sometimes it is the parents who force their kids into the class for these reasons. This, I believe, is a form of cultural appropriation, not wanting to participate fully in an activity, yet using said activity to represent another culture. The problem still remains, though, that in order to have a dance class, to be able to pay the instructor, rent a space, and have enough people to form a class, we must always be accepting of these interlopers who use Bollywood class as a way to appropriate another culture, but we must also continue to try to teach them as we try to also teach our audiences. There is a metaphor for life somewhere in this.
The sister issue to cultural appropriation and participation is cultural inclusion. This can be seen as a way for a culture to carve out its own space within an area that has a different dominant culture while trying to interact with the other culture instead of isolating itself. I believe Geeta does a great job of making our class very culturally inclusive on both sides of the stage, in that we as dancers are made to feel comfortable and capable of representing Indian dance, and our audiences are given and able to be included in this particular style of expression of India. We are able to have a reciprocal relationship with our community; in sum, we practice a cultural activity, but we also share that experience with our community as a way to form relationships and expand the local flavor.
So what does this mean for individual Bollywood dancers in Miami who are not of Indian descent? I have to admit that I did not really consider any of these topics before Professor Dhar asked me to consider them, and I am grateful for that. So to find out more, I asked three friends to comment: Lara P., a Nicaraguan-American, Annie S., an Anglo American, and Mario F., a Cuban/Italian-American, all of whom have danced with me in our class. I asked them each three questions: What is it like doing Bollywood dancing as a non-Indian person, why do you dance, and do you think Geeta is respectful in her manner of teaching and representing Indian culture through dance?
Lara answered that she dances because she loves the story each dance tells and how diverse the different styles of dance are. She “loves how everything has a meaning and tells a story.” Lara also mentioned that she did feel some apprehension when she thought about how other dancers would perceive her as a Latina taking an Indian dance class, but that she was welcomed with open arms, and the other dancers who are Indian “felt proud and honored that [she] wanted to take part in their culture.” Further, she “definitely” believes that Geeta runs a respectful class in regards to culture and costume.
Next, Annie S. answered the questions. Her story is a bit different from Lara’s and Mario’s. She had done Bollywood dance before in India when she visited for her friend’s wedding. The bride had the bridesmaids learn and perform four songs at the wedding. Later, when Annie moved to Miami, she noticed a Bollywood dance class offered by Miami Dade College Adult Education Department. She remembered her time in India, and thought that taking the class would be a great way to learn more about Indian dance and to also make new friends in a new city. Annie mentions that she feels comfortable participating in the Bollywood class “because everyone is racially and culturally diverse” and “many of the dancers are not Indian but are interested in Indian culture and dance.” Annie does admit that she sometimes feel out of place at events and feels awkward wearing the costumes, but adds that Geeta is very respectful and sensitive to the costuming and culture that her dance represents. Through Geeta’s explanation of song and dance meaning, Annie is able to “feel more comfortable dancing.”
Finally, Mario F. answered the questions. He says that he finds Bollywood dancing to be the most dynamic cultural dance style he has encountered. Mario also said something that I thought was enlightening. He says, “I find all cultures have something to benefit [from] all other cultures, and learning a cultural folk dance provides added insight into the values of the source culture, and helps you to gain an appreciation for something foreign to you, as well as respect for another way of being.” I think Mario’s attitude is so refreshing, especially in today’s polarized society! He concluded by saying that he believes that Geeta’s costuming and choreography are how he understands authentic Indian dance to be.
Considering what my dance mates have answered and what I have been thinking about lately, I believe the larger question is what are the responsibilities of a teacher and a student of cultural activities. Of course, there will be different answers by different people, but I think at its core, when representing a culture, that culture must be respected and treated as closely to tradition as possibly. The deeper questions of “what really is tradition?” and “who has ownership and access to tradition?” arise, but on a simple, layperson level, we can hope to agree that respect and tradition are necessary to many people. Thus, as an instructor or student of a cultural art, one must be sensitive to how it is represented, can be interpreted, and is accessible to a wider audience.
One way that Bollywood dance has helped me specifically this semester is how it allowed me to visualize the characters’ wedding ceremony in Jogajog by Rabindranath Tagore. In this section of the book, Kumu and Madhu are wed with great pomp and circumstance. Their wedding clothes are richly described. For our last big Bollywood dance competition, the dance we performed was a representation of the different stages of a traditional Indian wedding. For the performance, I wore a very authentic bride’s costume, and Mario wore a groom’s. This experience created an even more detailed picture in my mind of what was taking place at the wedding in Jogajog and how the characters were dressed.
When it comes to my own experience with Bollywood dance class, I have to say that it has brought me so much closer to my culture even though I sometimes feel so far removed from it. I have learned about regions of India and how each region is different from the next — it’s not just one homogenous lump of “Indian!” Also, because of the soirées we have, I have also learned about the food of India and how it is popular to eat vegetarian dishes in some parts of the country. I have gained a new appreciation for Bollywood film as well. Growing up, it was not something that anybody in my family ever introduced me to. Sometimes my grandmother would have a movie on in the background, but it was just to listen to the music; in addition, when Netflix first became popular, my dad would often order Indian films for him and my mom to watch, but again, it’s not something I really partook in. Now, though, I can say that through what I have learned from Geeta and my dance class makes me have a desire to watch more films and really appreciate the tradition they are upholding (or not) and analyze them as such.
Furthermore, I have come to find a place where I can learn more about my mother’s religion, which is a form of Hinduism (I know “Hinduism” can be a problematic subject, but I am explaining this to the best of my current understanding). Growing up, my mother never really shared her religion with me and never explained what she was doing when she was worshipping. I assume it was because she wanted me to assimilate into American culture and be as white as possible. However, because of the dances we do which often tell the stories of the deities, and because of the sorites Geeta tells us on special holidays, I have a much stronger connection with my mother’s religion.
Altogether, I think the most important thing I have learned from my Bollywood dance class is how to explore relationships more intensely. I have formed some wonderful mutual bonds with the people I danced with and with Geeta too. I have also been able to connect with my family and friends by inviting them to our dance shows. But most importantly, I have a stronger relationship with myself and my ancestry. I have learned one small amount about what it is to be Indian and how to respect and represent that, but that has turned out to be a huge part of me and who I am. By pushing on what I have yet to learn about a culture that is both a part of me and totally foreign to me, I am able to explore my own assumptions, misgivings, and society as a whole.