This past weekend I attended a NASHA, a Bollywood fusion and Raas Dance competition hosted by Purdue University. This was only the second competition I had attended in my 3 years on the Northwestern Raas dance team, but I already felt like a veteran Raas and Garba dancer. And then I realized it was because I come to recognize the Indian College dance community as a space where I culturally connected.
Raas and Garba are two traditional Indian dance styles that originated from the Indian state Gujurat. In the past, the two dance forms brought together the community in celebration of the harvest. Today, Raas is widely popularized by the Gujarati diaspora at important cultural gatherings and in the US has even become a style of dance used in collegiate dance competitions. Despite its basis in Indian culture, the Faas and Garba college dance circuit has created a space for Asian Americans by celebrating the American influences and values, including perseverance and sportsmanship. In an analysis of our dance team’s performance, I will outline the ability of competitive Indian dance circuits in the US as an inclusive space for the Asian Americans and argue it ability to counter hegemonic forces by representing a uniquely Asian American diaspora.
Our theme for this performance was The Game of Life. As a theme, The Game of Life serves as a convenient way to show the American pop influences that Asian American culture blends to form a cultural niche in competitive college dance. In general, Raas dance teams are asked to perform a short routine based on a theme, while Bollywood dance teams are asked to incorporate an entire story with voice overs and lead characters. The utilization of the iconic american game is unique to all who live and participate in a capitalist and hegemonic America.As you may know, the game requires all players to choose a career, a house, and marry. These components as incorporated by the stops sign at the back of the stage shows the heteronormative family ideal. In many ways, Vaishali’s insistance that the main character of the intro video go to college is indicative of the steps required to achieve the American dream. This is emphasized by the fact that most South Asian Americans participating in these competitions are 2nd generation immigrants whose parents have also reinforced the need to attain an education to fulfill the american dream. The symbolism in the theme’s key life events resonates with a predominantly South Asian American audience who can identify with its cultural connotations. However, our portrayal of the game is not out of subordination.
The specific choreography illustrates the game in way that all Americans can relate to, but still challenges some ideals of the norm. The Career section of the theme is showcased by a girl’s only transition using Rihanna’s Work that blatantly challenges gender stereotypes, and subtly questions cultural stereotypes as well. While a girl can do anything, an Asian American girl is not always expected to be a doctor or an engineer and our performance makes this clear. Thus, the act defies the diminutive and obedient Asian American girl as seen in Saving the Dragon. At the same time, it deviates from the expectations of a stereotypical Asian STEM career pathway.
The marriage life event of our routine also challenges the traditional US ideal of marriage with its introduction of Indian customs. The stop sign bearing the word “Shaadi”-marriage in hindi-is accompanied by the exchange of flower garlands between the groom and bride rather than the expected rings. This small change counters the hegemonic American wedding, but at the same time does not orientalize the Asian American act as strictly Indian and backward (Lecture). Rather the ease in the transition to the Shaadi as well as the display of the iconic rite normalize the traditions in an American setting.
While the choreography is expected to be primarily Raas/Garba, influences from other cultures and dance styles also enrich the performance and set it apart as an Asian American outlet. The addition of pop music such as A Milli by Lil’ Wayne in a mix with a Raas song revives interest in Eastern older music rather than bypassing it for Westernized popular music. There is still an appreciation of the Asian American culture that is not exoticized as it has been done in Flower Drum Song (Flower Drum Song, 1961). Even the use of hip hop choreography in the routine is reminiscent of Bruce Lee’s incorporation of multiple styles of martial arts to fight prejudice and create transnational understanding.
In fact many different backgrounds contribute to the South Asian American diaspora and those outside of the background can equally partake in the cultural dance circuits. Our team for instance has many students whose parents are not from Gujurat, some who are not even from India. These demographics convey varying exposure to Indian culture and what’s more Raas an garba, but the ability for all the learn and contribute to a performance produces a Asian American routine unlike those found in India. Beyond that, many students who do not even identify as south asian participate on Raas, Bhangra and Bollywood teams. Our team has a two students who identify as black and one who is of Trinidadian background. This inclusivity also serves to break hegemonic structures by creating hybridized spaces.
In other words, the cultural components and American pop culture influences do not merely add to create a Asian and American setting, they multiply and mold themselves to convey an Asian American experience. Like Bruce Lee’s character in Big Boss, I believe our team members have found a new identity in the Asian American diaspora, and won in the celebration of what it truly means to be Asian American.