Thursday, November 08, 2007

Bhangra in the 'Burgh November, 2007

Bhangra? It's something like this.

Rutgers University Bhangra Dance Group
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I emphasized the something because nothing short of seeing a live performance of a bhangra competition does it justice. It is a monstrously loud event even when dancers aren;t on stage. In a proper venue, as Bhangra in the 'Burgh was held at, the full dynamics of what these events are like can be appreciated. In the Soldiers & Sailors Museum & Memorial, a great-looking and well-maintained hall located within sight of the Cathedral of Learning and Pitt U., there is a wraparound balcony 15 rows deep hanging on both sides and rear of the building. While the audience sat on the first floor, all of the bhangra dance groups sat upstairs staring at the opposition on the other side of the balcony or sometimes just a few rows down. There was much baiting and razzing happening between the groups and their highly vocal and highly mobile supporters. Sometimes, if everyone in the balcony were moving, the only way you could tell a supporter from a dancer was that the latter had a costume. And what costumes (sorry no pictures by yours truly, only links)! The layout of the costumes made dressing up a long state of affairs. Variance between groups was extreme, although all of the participants followed the basics of the costume. The dancers all wore their turlas like fans spread from ear to ear, while the musicians (usually a drummer) wore his on one side of his head, front to back.

The Rutgers Bhangra Dance Group (but Guys only were performing this time around) ended up winning the competition and justifiably so. They were the only group to have live musicians (2 instrumentalists and 2 highly energized singers) play the music the dancers performed to. All of the other groups, while quite capable, danced to pre-recorded music which sometimes resulted in humorous lip-synching. I know I missed a lot of the subtleties. Bhangra struck me a lot like ballroom dancing or folk dancing. There's a basic formula to the choreography and there are certain movements and body posture one must carry through the 7-8 minute performance. How the three judges came up with scores was a mystery to most of us in the audience as no rules or standards were announced as part of the proceedings.

What required no explanation was the immediate level of energy that was attained once each of the 10 groups hit the stage for their performance. Each entrance was preceded by a amateurish, cheesy, video of the group and I mean this in the most complimentary way possible. It was great seeing the wavery filming, the loud-then-soft music introducing each member, and then the abrupt ending of the video followed by a tense 10-15 second darkened stage that abruptly exploded into light, sound, movement, and intense smiling. The supporters of each group stood as they performed, dancing and singing in unison with the folks on stage. Sometimes it was difficult keeping your eyes forward because the compadres in the side balconies were putting on a performance as well. And when audience members on the main floor got into the act, it was obvious how infectious the music and dancing of bhangra can be.

IMHO, however, bhangra can only be experienced live. TV/Videos, no matter the size of the screen, can carry all of the sights and sounds of the happening. It is like a revival of sorts, of the casting out of bad spirits or feelings. Confining this explosion within the structure of the movements serves to provide a common thrust for the dancers and for the audience. One looks up toward the ceiling and detects bad mojo floating away. You look around and everyone is smiling and shouting in tongues. Ah yes, the type of exhaustion that only comes with the expunging of ills.

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