Are Bollywood Dance Classes More Than Just Cultural Appropriation?
The author, far left, with instructor Achinta S. McDaniel, center, and Kristen Simentel
Courtesy the author
When I signed up for a Bollywood dance class, I honestly thought that I would end up getting annoyed with how white the supposedly Indian class was. Coming from an Indian family, I was gently pushed into traditional Bharatanatyam dance classes when I was 6. While I was by no means an undiscovered dance talent, I learned the basics, which included a lot of very deliberate hand positions and determinedly smashing my heels into the floor in an exact pattern. Last Wednesday, when I went to Bollywood Bhangra Beats, I didn’t expect to find anything that resembled any of my old, somewhat-classical training. I was expecting trendy workout outfits, a non-Indian teacher and that Coldplay-Beyoncé song that’s best known for appropriating Indian culture.
None of my high-and-mighty predictions were correct. Instead of finding Lululemon-clad Bollywood biddies and inauthentic music, I found Achinta S. McDaniel (McDaniel being her married name), the founder and artistic director of Blue13 Dance Company, and a Bollywood choreographer who has appeared on television and in many Bollywood films. From start to finish, her class reminded me of a traditional Indian wedding, where everyone — really, everyone — is expected to raise their arms with their index fingers pointed upward and pump their shoulders to the music.
According to McDaniel, my preconceptions of what a Bollywood class might be weren’t completely unfounded. Just like there are inauthentic Zumba classes, yoga teachers who mispronounce “chakra” and bougie guided meditations that cost a fortune, there are imposter Bollywood classes in L.A. McDaniel says she appreciates their sincere interest in Indian dance, even though it’s hard not to laugh at the imitators.
“I find it alarming and offensive for instructors to simply decide they are going to now teach Bollywood and choreograph Bollywood with zero training or knowledge of the style. It sort of feels to me like an ‘any idiot can do Bollywood’ statement,” McDaniel said.
McDaniel teaches a group.
“As ridiculous as that sounds, that is the sentiment when inexperienced teachers, be they children's competition choreographers, fitness teachers at gyms or celebrity choreographers, take it upon themselves to just ‘teach a Bollywood class’ or routine. It reeks of disrespect and appropriation,” she added.
My Bollywood Bhangra Beats class was held at Downtown Dance and Movement, a gorgeous, brand-new studio. The space is sprawling and tasteful, though if you’re going to take a class on the same night as a Kings game, you need to leave early to give yourself extra time to find parking.
Should you ever go to an Indian wedding, it’s important to understand that they don’t give a shit if you’re uncomfortable with (or just plain bad at) their style of dance. They’ll make you dance anyway; it’s part of their hospitable nature. McDaniel’s class was the same way. She encouraged our class to move without fear of getting the steps wrong, with the same insistence my older cousins had when they pried me out of my seat and onto the dance floor at weddings.
Our Bollywood class was just as much about theatrics as it was about dance. Bollywood films tell a story, but not in the same way American movies do. They are theatrical in an over-the-top, escape-from-reality kind of way. (You'd be hard-pressed to find a Hindi version of Room, because there's no way to incorporate song, dance and coy head tilts into the script.) The class reflected that Bollywood-movie feeling.
“What are we wearing in this scene?” McDaniel called out, as we prepare to learn phase two of the choreography.
“Like, maybe a gown? Peach or lavender?” she asked, looking over her shoulder at us. “I think peach.”
We nodded. Seeing as McDaniel once taught her Bollywood moves to the cast of the Fox sitcom New Girl, I was inclined to trust her make-believe wardrobe judgment.
Bollywood is about big movements; it demands you bend your limbs in exuberant ways. There is nothing reserved about it. Being a Bollywood star is miles away from being a stony-faced ballerina. In fact, the movement is so animated and bouncy that it forces the corners of your mouth upward. I ended up with a confused, sort of manic smile on my face because being deliberately cheerful and still following the steps was difficult.
Whenever it became clear that we were falling behind on the choreography, McDaniel broke the steps down: “Your right arm reaches up like you’re hailing a taxi. And again. Then you fold your arms together like an airplane seatbelt, and push them down.”
We picked up the pace.
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“Taxi! Taxi! Seatbelt! Seatbelt!”
We hailed taxi cabs and pushed down seatbelts as we glided/stumbled across the floor doing the Bollywood version of the two-step. We rewound back to the beginning, and started the dance by bouncing our right feet from front to back while rotating our wrists with our hands holding a sideways thumbs up.
McDaniel yelled out encouragement over the Bollywood music, not caring that she could very well be damaging her vocal chords.
“I’m so proud of you guys!”
If this class could be explained in an emoji sequence, it would be the red dancer girl, 80 exclamation points, and then the toothy, what-the-eff-is-going-on smiley face.
McDaniel and students
Photo by Anne Slattery
Bollywood, McDaniel explained when I asked why we were constantly “giving face,” is about “letting go of inhibitions, laughing throughout class, putting on a ‘mask’ and being the Bollywood movie star.”
The style of dance is not so much sexual as it is flirtatious and enticing. It requires vulnerability in that you are moving your shoulders, hips and feet in ways that don’t quite feel natural, but it didn’t make me as uncomfortable as I thought it would.
The dawning of Bollywood culture in L.A. is relatively recent. Just 10 years ago, McDaniel says there were no Bollywood or Bhangra classes for the public in L.A. (or even in New York, where she was before relocating). There were student groups, families and temples holding cultural events that featured Bollywood, but there was nothing that was truly accessible to the rest of the L.A. community who hadn’t grown up eating aloo chole. There weren’t classes that could reach people of other ethnicities who wanted to learn about Bollywood dancing and the culture that came with it. That’s why, nearly a decade ago, McDaniel started a class that she knew would appeal to dance studios and students of any ethnicity and skill level.
“I began Bollywood Bhangra Beats at Swerve on West Third Street, which became wildly popular, so much so that I trademarked the name and quickly expanded to teach the class at studios all over the city,” she says.
From what McDaniel and Downtown Dance and Movement studio owner Linda Valentino said, the Bollywood community is one of the more diverse in the L.A. dance scene, which isn't surprising because the class is very "Indian" in that it's so welcoming. This amount of hospitality might seem over-the-top or disingenuous in another setting, but in Hollywood's Bollywood it feels completely genuine.
Blue13 Dance Company offers Bollywood classes in Hollywood, North Hollywood, Culver City, Pasadena and downtown; bluedance13.com.
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