Yes, Denver has jalwa. Hey, weâ€™ve even got the original Dhak Dhak girl in our midst! (And yes, I know some of you are Bollywood haters. Go wreak havoc on another post, ok?) When I moved to Colorado a few years ago, I was amazed to discover that I could watch many Bollywood films on opening night. Thereâ€™s tea and samosas at the concession, and hoots from the girls whenever Salman takes off his shirt. They hoot. I cringe. If he had better moves, he would refrain from such tasteless exhibitionism.
And thatâ€™s where Renu Kansal comes to the rescue.
Old-timers may recognize her from her previous avatar, but over the last three years, Renu has enrolled over 630 students at her studio, Bollywood West, and now serves as the semi-official Bollywood ambassador of Colorado.Last February, Renuâ€™s studio attracted national media attention, where she confessed (for shame) that she wasnâ€™t a sure that a Bollywood dance studio would thrive out here in this forsaken land:
Students swing their hips, raise one hand to their mouths as if calling out to a lover, and then lift one leg and hop forward in a line. After the number, instructor Renu Kansal reminds the dancers to wave their arms side to side smoothly, so they don’t look “too drill-team-ish.” As if they were in a Bollywood movie, the dancers are trying to tell a story of romance. “I taught this in New York, and when we moved out here and I started Bollywood dancing classes, I was skeptical,” Kansal said in an interview. “I was like, oh gosh, I don’t know if this’ll work here. But I had to double my class offerings in under a month. It was a huge surprise to me.” [link]
As you might guess, her classes are not quite like those offered by the auntie who teaches the kids for the Diwali function. Itâ€™s a professional operation, and a serious dance studio. Iâ€™ve taken notice of the fact that sheâ€™s taken Denver by storm by opening her studio to everybody â€“ across dance experiences, gender, age, and race. If youâ€™ve seen these folks move once, youâ€™re hooked by how much fun theyâ€™re havingâ€”and did we mention the fact that theyâ€™re good?
Because theyâ€™re good, Bollywood West has been popping up all over the news in the post-Slumdog era– in places youâ€™d expect, but even more spectacularlyâ€”in places you wouldnâ€™t. On the no-brainer side, Bollywood West has performed at some of the most high profile events in Denverâ€”like the November 2008 Starz Denver Film Festival opening of that filmÂ that won some awards.Â
But last May, Bollywood â€œwent to bat.â€ Billed as â€œa great chance for the Bollywood-curious to get their feet wet — and for Bollywood fans to check out the great American pastime, â€œ you may still be wondering why Renuâ€™s company would be asked to perform for a Colorado Rockies game (2007 World Series, um, hopefuls,) And here it is:
â€œThey wanted something upbeat, high-energy, youthful and vibrant. We are, apparently, all of those thingsâ€¦ We play cricket in India, so the transition to baseball takes a little explaining, usually,â€ Kansal says. â€œPeople want to know where the wickets went and why you have to run around four bases instead of back and forth between two — and why the games are so short. Cricket games go on for days.Â â€œYou never know what could happen,â€ she goes on. â€œWe could redefine the point of confluence between Bollywood and baseball. Hopefully we can turn some sports fans into Bollywood fans as well.â€ [link]
Itâ€™s all about confluence, you see. Last month, Renu and her company were asked to present at whatâ€™s probably one of the most popular and talked about cultural event series around here: Mixed Taste, at MCA Denver. The idea is to take two speakers who have nothing to do with one another, throw them in a space where they present one after the other without referring to each other, and then let all hell break loose in the discussion. I was there. Soâ€¦ we had Bollywood West vs. Urban Parkour. (And no, Iâ€™m not going even try to explain what Urban Parkour is. Just watch the link, ok?) The crowd is the urban contemporary museum meets artsy hipster crowdâ€”- not so brown, in other words. (Proof: I was complimented on my dancing at the reception and almost choked on my drink.)
Back to topic. After watching Urban Parkour (APEX movement/CO Parkour) literally bounce off walls and elicit â€œoohsâ€ and “aaahs,â€ I was a little worried as to how Bollywood dance vs. Urban Parkour would play out. Suspense. Then Renu dazzled us through a genealogy and classification of Bollywood-style dancingâ€”from past to present in under 45 minutes, with ample demonstrations by her company, including a performance of the recent Aaja Nachle number, â€œShow Me Your Jalwa.â€ As for the discussion, hereâ€™s how it went down:
The first question?
â€œWhatâ€™s a jalwa?â€
And shortly thereafter,
â€œI ask that each group show me its jalwa.â€
And so they did, after which many other questions followed.Â The Bollywood folks commented on Parkour, the Parkour on Bollywood. And it ended with the Parkour folks (called “Traceursâ€) bouncing off more things while Bollywood West jammed to â€œJai Ho.â€ Surreal, but definitely one of the most fun and interesting events Iâ€™ve been to for a long time.
Given that weâ€™re apparently the only two people in Colorado who read Sepia Mutiny (Mountain mutineers, hello???) I wanted to ask her some questions that have been keeping me up at night, and she obliged to answering them.
1.Â Â Â Did Madhuri Dixit pass on her dancing jalwa to you in a mystical ceremony, or did you actually convince your parents that it was ok to study Bollywood dancing? Â
Sadly, neither. My dad, like most desi dads of the time, was not at all supportive to send me to college as a (gasp! Cue shame!) dance major. I managed to capitalize on the Pavlovian Dad-word â€œengineerâ€ and convinced my parents that a degree in Audio Engineering and Sound Reinforcement/Acoustical Engineering was a good idea. I think they didnâ€™t know what it actually was, luckily for me. (i.e., listen to music all the time and hang around all your friends in the band, yet while still getting paid). They heard the word engineer and rejoiced at my potential stability and maintenance of the desi career-trinity (daktur-enjneer-compootersciences)
2.Â Â Â Your studio is thriving. From what Iâ€™ve read, it sounds as if you hadnâ€™t predicted something like Bollywood West would take off here. What about the Denver/ Colorado area has made it so supportive of what youâ€™re doing?
Not that I didnâ€™t want it to succeed, I just had to be realistic, as does anyone starting up a business. I planned for it to be really lean for a couple of yearsâ€¦ That said, I think that even though Colorado is considered flyover/RedState turf, Denver and Boulder are small cultural bright spots on the way to either coast. We donâ€™t get enough credit. People out here are very culturally oriented, very physically active, and thereâ€™s a prevailing â€œwhy not?â€ attitude when presented with something new. My student base is made up of a lot â€œwhy notâ€™sâ€ that have been straight hypnotized by the jhatka-matkas and the haripas, and they keep coming back, week after week, year after year! Out here itâ€™s really such a diverse group that comes to our classes, it makes it hard to pin down demographics and target-audience data. I guess the only recurring theme is that our people like to shake itâ€¦
3.Â Â Â This is a hard one, but what would you say to those cynical party-poopers who look at the American enthusiasm for Bollywood dancing as Orientalist? (To those who decry Bollywood dancing as vulgar and superficial, I say you remind me of my elderly relatives. The crotchety ones.)
Iâ€™d say it just comes back aroundâ€”American movies of the 30s and 40s were musical style, just like Bollywood. It just happened that American film trended away from this style and Indian cinema found a way to make it work in almost any situation. With Moulin Rouge, High School Musical, the movie of Rent, and a bunch of other near-to-recent films, itâ€™s ridiculous to say that India has a lockdown on the concept of songs/dances in movies. Itâ€™s just that mainstream American film abandoned the model until only recently. The intrigue and popularity of Bollywood movies now serves as a catalyst to make it all more mainstream digestible here in the US again and for the American film industry to re-popularize soundtrack oriented films and incorporate dance again. Western grandparents see it as coming back around to the style they loved, this is nothing new. And I donâ€™t think healthy interest and enthusiasm for any culture is a bad thingâ€”itâ€™s the opposite action that perpetuates all things bad and the worst behaviors in society. I remember one time, with Bollywood Axion, we were shooting for a Japanese documentary and they had followed us along to some performance at the South Street Seaport Diwali Mela. At the end of the shooting day, after performances, the director wanted us to say something cheesy and exuberant on-camera like â€œBollywood for everyone!â€ So we shout, â€œBollywood for everyone!!â€ and some crotchety old aunties, shuffling by, snapped at us â€œNo! Bollywood is just for Indian!!â€ and scowled like salty hags that they were. Unless they personally were descendents of DadaSahib Phalke, I say nobody has any ownership over Bollywood, as an industry or a culture.
4.Â Â Â What do you see as the next big trends in Bollywood dancing? Aerial? Parkour? Mosh pits?
Parkour definitely is a new trend, seen in both Tashan and ham-fistedly in Dilli-6. Akshay being part-ninja, executed his runs pretty well, though Iâ€™m sure there are local Bombay traceurs who would put him to shame. (Including our own BongBreaker, of London.) Weâ€™ve only seen one instance of Aerialâ€”that of Isha Shervani in Luck By Chance, although I still maintain Iâ€™d performed the first bollywood aerial routine, last summer. I think the more the global stage of dance is opening up, with borderless media like online, TV programs like SYTYCD, etcâ€”the style will continue to influence and be influenced globally. There was a big run of salsa-influenced bollywood dancing, a few years agoâ€¦ it will change to Polish goat-farmer dancing, if thatâ€™s the new hot trend. Iâ€™m sure they can throw it down, the Polish goat-farmersâ€¦
5.Â Â Â Lastly, are you as dumbfounded as I am that they havenâ€™t shot a Bollywood movie in Aspen or Vail yet?
Yes!! And it would be a breeze to hire back-up dancers and a choreographer, locally, if they didâ€”cough cough.
Afterward: Shortly after Renu answered these questions, she dropped a tantalizing tidbit but swore me to secrecy for a few days. (DesiDancerâ€™s been plotting some new tamasha.) Stay tunedâ€¦