Staying Alive: Bollywood in Buffalo
I'm late to the Bollywood bandwagon.
I’ve never seen a Bollywood movie, and, even though a friend gave me some Bollywood dance DVDs about eight years ago, I’ve yet to try them. I might have remained in the dark forever had Gaitrie Devi Subryan not contacted Spree about establishing the first authentic Bollywood dance classes in the area. I talked my daughter—a Niagara University theater performance major who is more familiar with dance than I—into coming with me to a beginner class, and off we went, with loose clothing, bare feet, and open minds.
The name Bollywood comes from a combination of Bombay (now Mumbai) and Hollywood, and is the brand for one of the largest film production centers in the world. Traditionally, Bollywood films are melodramatic with larger than life characters, star-crossed lovers, reversals, broad comedy, and plenty of crowd pleasing action. And they are also musicals, often with carefully choreographed and impressive dance sequences with elaborate costumes. It’s these dances that inspired stars like Britney Spears to throw some Bollywood moves into videos or stage shows. The moves made their way onto television dance and talent shows and, of course, into gyms and dance studios. Bollywood dance classes are offered in major cities across the country—including, now, Buffalo.
Today, Bollywood dance encompasses a wide range of pure forms such as Kathak, Bharatnatyam, Odissi, Garba, and Bhangra, as well as more contemporary fusion styles that incorporate belly dance, Latin, hop hop, or jazz along with classic Bollywood footwork, hand shapes, and facial expressions. Taking a class is much about fitness as it is about culture. It was evident from the moment my daughter and I entered the Tonawanda studio and were greeted on the staircase by burning incense—this was not going to be CrossFit.
Devi is in residence at Oasis Dance Studio (920 Niagara Falls Boulevard, Tonawanda), where she teaches two classes a week; she also offers drop-in classes at Yoga Parkside. The Oasis studio is brightly lit, brightly colored, and draped with fabric that gives the whole place a warm, exotic feeling unlike any gym or traditional dance studio. Including my daughter and me, there were seven beginners ready to experience a new dance adventure—and we were all visibly nervous.
Fortunately, Devi—a 2006 UB grad who was born in Guyana, South Africa, raised in the Bronx, and moved to Buffalo in 2011—has a personality as warm as the room, and she’s fantastic at putting people at ease. “I’ve had a passion for dance for as long as I could remember,” she says. “I was always intrigued by the actresses in the Bollywood films; I tried to imitate them. When I was attending UB, I choreographed for various student-run groups. After I graduated and moved back to New York, I started taking classes at Bollywood Axion—New York’s first Bollywood dance school—and from there, I moved on to the performing troupe and, in 2009, I became a company performer for The Sa Dance Company. I’ve taught private sessions and choreographed to group performances, but this is still a whole new path of being in front of a classroom setting with all eyes following me!”
Nonetheless, Devi is a natural. As this was a the first week of a four-week beginners’ session, she explained a little about Bollywood dance, encouraged questions at any time, and moved slowly through the first block of choreography, which she teaches add-on style, first without music, and then with it. The method works, and everyone in the class was able to catch on without frustration (note that if you’re quick to catch on to dance steps, you may grow impatient). Each successive week, students learn another one-minute block until they’ve learned all four for a full routine, which totals about four minutes.
“My students tell me they really like the music,” Devi says. “In addition, they mention to me that they enjoy my teaching style and they feel accomplished by learning a full routine at the end of a four-week session. Since it is different, people are usually nervous about trying it because of not being familiar or not having prior experience. Everyone should try it, at least once.”
I agree; there’s a reason bandwagons are crowded, and this class was a ton of fun. One caveat for those who might want this class to sub for a day’s workout: neither my daughter nor I even broke a sweat. All the stops and starts, while great for learning, don’t do much to keep any kind of intensity going. I am sure that by the fourth class, when students will be repeating a full routine many times, that aspect will improve a bit. Devi also teaches a mixed level class that she says offers a better cardio effect, so if you’re looking to sweat a little, I’d recommend trying that one. And if you just want to move your body in new ways and immerse yourself in a different culture for an hour, the class is still well worth your time.
“To me dance is not just about movement, it’s about continuously learning about one’s self,” Devi says. “I try my best to teach them new things about what their body and mind can do as well as give them insight about the Indian culture. It’s a treat!”
Time to pull out those DVDs.
Donna Hoke is a thirty-year health and fitness enthusiast. She recommends trying Yoga Booty Ballet Live Body Sculpting Bollywood Style, which she tried and enjoyed after writing this piece. For more information about Devi’s classes: devibollywooddance.com.