Denver, Show Me Your Jalwa!

Yes, Denver has jalwa. Hey, we’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. There’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 that’s where Renu Kansal comes to the rescue.

Bollywood West.jpg

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, Renu’s studio attracted national media attention, where she confessed (for shame) that she wasn’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. It’s a professional operation, and a serious dance studio. I’ve taken notice of the fact that she’s taken Denver by storm by opening her studio to everybody – across dance experiences, gender, age, and race. If you’ve seen these folks move once, you’re hooked by how much fun they’re having—and did we mention the fact that they’re good?

Because they’re good, Bollywood West has been popping up all over the news in the post-Slumdog era– in places you’d expect, but even more spectacularly—in places you wouldn’t. On the no-brainer side, Bollywood West has performed at some of the most high profile events in Denver—like the November 2008 Starz Denver Film Festival opening of that film that won some awards. 

But last May, Bollywood “went to bat.” Billed as “a great chance for the Bollywood-curious to get their feet wet — and for Bollywood fans to check out the great American pastime, “ you may still be wondering why Renu’s company would be asked to perform for a Colorado Rockies game (2007 World Series, um, hopefuls,) And here it is:

“They wanted something upbeat, high-energy, youthful and vibrant. We are, apparently, all of those things… We play cricket in India, so the transition to baseball takes a little explaining, usually,” Kansal says. “People 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.  “You never know what could happen,” she goes on. “We could redefine the point of confluence between Bollywood and baseball. Hopefully we can turn some sports fans into Bollywood fans as well.” [link]

It’s all about confluence, you see. Last month, Renu and her company were asked to present at what’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. So… we had Bollywood West vs. Urban Parkour. (And no, I’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 crowd—- 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 “oohs” and “aaahs,” 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 dancing—from past to present in under 45 minutes, with ample demonstrations by her company, including a performance of the recent Aaja Nachle number, “Show Me Your Jalwa.” As for the discussion, here’s how it went down:

The first question?

“What’s a jalwa?”

And shortly thereafter,

“I ask that each group show me its jalwa.”

And so they did, after which many other questions followed.  The Bollywood folks commented on Parkour, the Parkour on Bollywood. And it ended with the Parkour folks (called “Traceurs”) bouncing off more things while Bollywood West jammed to “Jai Ho.” Surreal, but definitely one of the most fun and interesting events I’ve been to for a long time.

Given that we’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.    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?  

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 “engineer” and convinced my parents that a degree in Audio Engineering and Sound Reinforcement/Acoustical Engineering was a good idea. I think they didn’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.    Your studio is thriving. From what I’ve read, it sounds as if you hadn’t predicted something like Bollywood West would take off here. What about the Denver/ Colorado area has made it so supportive of what you’re doing?

Not that I didn’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 years… 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 don’t get enough credit. People out here are very culturally oriented, very physically active, and there’s a prevailing “why not?” attitude when presented with something new. My student base is made up of a lot “why not’s” 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 it’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 it…

3.    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.)

I’d say it just comes back around—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, it’s ridiculous to say that India has a lockdown on the concept of songs/dances in movies. It’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 don’t think healthy interest and enthusiasm for any culture is a bad thing—it’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 “Bollywood for everyone!” So we shout, “Bollywood for everyone!!” and some crotchety old aunties, shuffling by, snapped at us “No! Bollywood is just for Indian!!” 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.    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 I’m sure there are local Bombay traceurs who would put him to shame. (Including our own BongBreaker, of London.) We’ve only seen one instance of Aerial—that of Isha Shervani in Luck By Chance, although I still maintain I’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, etc—the style will continue to influence and be influenced globally. There was a big run of salsa-influenced bollywood dancing, a few years ago… it will change to Polish goat-farmer dancing, if that’s the new hot trend. I’m sure they can throw it down, the Polish goat-farmers… ;)

5.    Lastly, are you as dumbfounded as I am that they haven’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 did—cough cough.

Afterward: Shortly after Renu answered these questions, she dropped a tantalizing tidbit but swore me to secrecy for a few days. (DesiDancer’s been plotting some new tamasha.) Stay tuned…

39 thoughts on “Denver, Show Me Your Jalwa!

  1. Thanks for this link-filled post — awesome to see Renu doing so well out “west.”

    What do you see as the next big trends in Bollywood dancing? Aerial? Parkour? Mosh pits?

    Don’t forget kung fu/martial arts! (I see martial arts & fight sequences in movies as a kind of dance form). Chandni Chowk to China may have been a flop (at least, I vaguely remember hearing that it was) — and there’s no doubt that it was a preposterous, silly story — but it seemed to reach a new level in Hong Kong fight choreography. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more of that.

  2. I ask that each group show me its jalwa.”

    vaat is this dancing-shanciing. forget the jalwa. show desi some halwa.

    mmmm…

  3. Amardeep, Renu’s in the paper almost every week. A bit hard to miss– but it’s all good. I haven’t seen Chandni Chowk to China, but martial arts and fight sequences are definitely big right now. The Parkour is definitely making its way into some films, and as Renu mentions above, it’s not entirely unrelated. Here’s a link to an article where Akshay talks about Parkour.

    Khoofi, you’re making me hungry. Stop that.

  4. I managed to capitalize on the Pavlovian Dad-word “engineer” and convinced my parents that a degree in Audio Engineering and Sound Reinforcement/Acoustical Engineering was a good idea.

    See? Not all arts majors end up being a Table Placement Engineer = waiter.

    I haven’t seen Chandni Chowk to China, but martial arts and fight sequences are definitely big right now.

    Tamil Nadu has been told to calm down with their marial artin’ selves. Kids might get hurt.

  5. “Given that we’re apparently the only two people in Colorado who read Sepia Mutiny (Mountain mutineers, hello???)”

    Hello! I’m in Colorado! Does anybody know how to link and quote? I’m having a hard time figuring it out. The old SM format had a help button.

  6. Whoooaaaa, I read Sepia religiously whilst in Denver. That said– there ain’t many mutineers. Sadly, I left a couple months ago. BUT! I was always waiting for the Mountain Meet-up and then decided that I needed a job and decided to move to the Brown capital of the west– SF.

  7. nilanjana: great to hear from a denver mutineer, i’ve been a fan of sepiamutiny for so long and its great to finally hear things about our own city!

  8. Shehan, sorry to have missed you! Jay, alas, as Renu has pointed out to me, where I live in the Springs makes Denver look like Jackson Heights. But at 75 mph+ on most of I-25, it’s all relative. Denver’s great!

  9. They look like they’re auditioning for American Idol or So You Think You Can Dance or something…(by the way the bollywood dance sequences in SYTYCD rock big time)

    “Parkour definitely is a new trend, seen in both Tashan and ham-fistedly in Dilli-6″ Tashan over Delhi-6? Seriously? ninjas working for a up/bihari mafia/farmer type gunda? Naah…

    @#1 “Don’t forget kung fu/martial arts! (I see martial arts & fight sequences in movies as a kind of dance form). Chandni Chowk to China may have been a flop (at least, I vaguely remember hearing that it was) — and there’s no doubt that it was a preposterous, silly story — but it seemed to reach a new level in Hong Kong fight choreography. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more of that.”

    Seriously, I don’t understand why people dislike CC2C? I’ve always wanted to see a ‘Stephen Chow meets Bollywood’ kinda flick… and CC2C was pretty close… agreed it needed lots of editing (too many f***ing ads) & the storyline was pretty cheesy too (which I believe was intentional) but if “Om Shanti Om” can work for you, why not CC2C. All die hard Stephen Chow (Kung Fu Hustle, Shaolin Soccer) fans should watch CC2C.

    About Kung Fu style action ~ just compare Priyank Chopra’s disgustingly bad Kung Fu cum Yoga exersice(?) scene in “Don: The Chase Begins” to Deepika Padukone’s fight scene at the airport in CC2C… damn that girl kicks ass (I bet she could beat up that psuedo action guy Akshay Kumar)

    About Parkour in Indian Films ~ I think Tamil Cinema has beat Bollywood to the punch yet again (ps: I’m not Tamil) ~ watch Surya’s chase scene in Ayan – a Jason Bourne (Identity/ultimatum?) meets Parkour kinda action

  10. Hello! I’m in Colorado! Does anybody know how to link and quote? I’m having a hard time figuring it out. The old SM format had a help button.

    Hi gem,

    It took me a while to figure it out too :) Just copy-paste the lines you wish to quote. Then highlight them and click on the quotation marks button on the toolbar above. That should put it on a block-quote.

    PG

  11. I think Tamil Cinema has beat Bollywood to the punch yet again (ps: I’m not Tamil) ~ watch Surya’s chase scene in Ayan – a Jason Bourne (Identity/ultimatum?) meets Parkour kinda action

    Yes, he does it amazingly well! and I am not Tamizh!

  12. I am lucky enough to live in an area where there are at least three multiplexes showing Indian films, two of which will also sell me pani puri, samosas, desi fries, chai and a lassi at intermission. But I can’t find a place to take Bollywood-style dance lessons–or at least a place where an out-of-shape white chick could have some fun without feeling like a complete fool! Can she please, please, please open a franchise in Dallas?

  13. Sepia mutiny has become a boring blog.

    Some of the wierdest and plain stupid articles/blogs show up these days.

    Whats with this downturn, guess the economy going down means, guess.. sepia is past its prime.

    oh well, nice going for the few years u were fun to read.

  14. (Proof: I was complimented on my dancing at the reception and almost choked on my drink.)

    Haha, and here I thought I was the only desi girl who couldn’t dance. Funny thing is I was just looking through Google listings for “desi dancing school” and “Philadelphia.” My dreams of becoming a backup dancer in Bollywood are slowly dying :’( Fare thee well, Salman Khan.

  15. Good luck to DesiDancer and her crew. It’s nice to see that she is doing well.

  16. But I thought NDM was the ONLY Bollywood school in the country (sorry for the sarcasm…just venting after seeing Nakul Dev Mahajan’s uninspired work on Superstars of Dance and So You Can You Can Dance, and wondering why Hollywood can’t seem to hire any of the other talented choreographers in the country).

  17. What is the South Asian population of Denver and Colorado. The last I saw it was 10,000 for the Denver metro area and 16,000 for the all state of Colorado. Alot different from where I live.

  18. Suki, this site lists approximately 16,000 estimated in 2005– which is the same number as yours. It’s a “young” population, with a few exceptions. Where I grew up on the East Coast, there were many of us whose parents had immigrated in the late 60s/early 70s and had us sometime afterward. The 2nd generation population that I see most often here is in high school or younger, and most of the South Asian people I’ve met aged 25-40 have settled here after going to graduate school and are starting to have kids of their own if they don’t have a few already.

  19. But I thought NDM was the ONLY Bollywood school in the country (sorry for the sarcasm…just venting after seeing Nakul Dev Mahajan’s uninspired work on Superstars of Dance and So You Can You Can Dance, and wondering why Hollywood can’t seem to hire any of the other talented choreographers in the country).

    FormerDancer, I thought I was the only one! My family and friends love the Bollywood dances on American dance shows, but I think they just are siked about seeing desis or desi stuff on American shows. I really hated Nakul’s choreography on Superstars of Dance (I loved the one solo kathak dancer, but she had her own talent and I don’t know how much of hers he did or didn’t choreograph) and was so unhappy to see that he also choreographed the Bollywood sequences for SYTYCD. Ugh. (I want to see a Bollywood dance on American show worthy of Madhuri, dammit!)

    What bugs me is that when I see any type of Indian or Indian-type dance on American TV, it basically tells the audience all they have to do is stick a bindi on and funny looking shiny clothes, hop around, alternate 3 or 4 arm movements/hip thrusts and you have a “Bollywood” dance. It makes it seem like there is no skill or technique needed. Granted, some dances in Bollywood movies haven’t required much technique, but they are all at different quality levels. There is good and bad choreography, just like in any other style of dance. But there are so many other choreographers in the entire United States who create better choreography – HE is the only one available for TV?? The other choreographers on SYTYCD all challenge the dancers, who clearly all have a certain degree of skill and training, to learn dances outside of their normal style and also learn the technique required. Why doesn’t Nakul? The Bollywood dances on that show have all seemed so low-brow to me. (I especially hated his Dola Re Dola for that pair of girls on Superstars of Dance. Ick.) And if anyone can do it, as they make it seem on SYTYCD, then why don’t they get anyone else to choreograph?

    I get it, TV execs – we’re exotic, but you want us to be accessible. Foreign, but not above you. Right? Saaley.

  20. it basically tells the audience all they have to do is stick a bindi on and funny looking shiny clothes, hop around, alternate 3 or 4 arm movements/hip thrusts and you have a “Bollywood” dance.

    Fuerza Dolce (and Former Dancer), you have pretty much summed it up– except for the frequent “pretend you’re a snake charmer” bit.

    Btw, there’s an interesting competition online right now for all of you Madhuri and Hrithik wannabes– and some interesting submissions to check out. The Esurance Bollywood Casting Call

    1. Perform a scene from one of the eligible Bollywood clips, and record your performance in a digital video file… … 6. The winner will be turned into a cartoon and featured in an animated Bollywood-style music video with Erin Esurance!

    Go crazy, guys. In the meantime, my two left feet have already animated myself today.

  21. I’m a young desi guy from Denver. Indians have been doing these bollywood/bhangra shows/classes for the Colorado community FOR YEARS.

    Renu Kansal just took it to a new level — more mainstream. Indians from larger cities (NY,LA, Chicago,etc) usually set up Bollywood dance classes, Indian restaurants, Hindi/Sanskrit classes, etc, here due to the lack of competition. Renu probably fits into this category.

    Parkour definitely is a new trend

    LOL, Parkour has been around for a long time…it was a new trend like 4-5 years ago. There are parkour groups/clubs all over the US, Europe and world. It shows how “trendy” you are, Kansal Auntyji.

  22. What is the South Asian population of Denver and Colorado.

    Its about 20,000+, including Pakistanis, Nepalis, Bangaldeshis, Sri Lankans. They are mostly concentrated in Aurora, Boulder, Denver and Colorado Springs.

    Aurora is the Desi/Indian capital of Colorado. I-25 & Parkour Road in Aurora, to be more specific.

  23. I’m afraid my comments might give away my identity. I’m Jignesh Patel from Denver ;)

    -Gujurati Samaj of Colorado

  24. I’ve taken notice of the fact that she’s taken Denver by storm by opening her studio to everybody – across dance experiences, gender, age, and race

    Haha its mostly Midwestern white people looking for something “exotic” (beside the typical latino culture that exists in Denver) who go to your studio, Auntyji!

    Thats all for now.

    Goodnight America.

    -Jignesh Patel

  25. Hi Denver Native, Fresh young thing, Auntyji Nilanjana is going to hunt you down at 5280. Kidding. Glad we have some Coloradans on SM!

    Nobody will argue with you that the aunties have been teaching the kids (and the kids are teaching themselves) for years now. But it’s almost impossible for any of these people to get noticed by the mainstream, as Former Dancer and Fuerza Dulce point out, and these teachers are less accessible to those of us who aren’t part of a temple or gurdwara, don’t compete in the spelling bees or Ramayana recitation contests, don’t go to schools with bhangra troupes, etc. (Yup, we exist. And it’s not an age thing either. The (desi included) college students I teach down the road are itching for somebody to teach them bhangra and filmi dancing too, and I’m trying to convince Renu to open a studio down here.) The fact that Renu’s company and studio are getting noticed is as much a product of her business acumen as her talent to teach well– and to make all sorts of students feel comfortable in her class.

    And are you really going to pull the aunty card out? Sigh. You so don’t know who you’re dealing with, but you’ll all find more about that soon. Nobody’s saying that Parkour’s new. (Listen to Ryan talk in the video; he breaks down the history, way down– and beautifully. It’s been around for a long time, certainly longer than we have.) We haven’t seen it in Hindi films until lately, that’s all.

  26. I regret commenting in this thread. It just gives unnecessary attention and importance to this attention whore, Renu Kansal.

    Bye forever.

    Goodnight America.

    -Jignesh Patel

  27. They haven’t filmed an Indian movie in Aspen or Vail as far as I know, but about 8 years ago they did film in some other parts of western Colorado. It caused a huge ruckus in Denver, a big part of the community pretty much stalked down the film shooting crew which had Aishwarya Rai, Anil Kapoor,Esha Deol (and her mom Hema Malini) and Sridevi was tehre too with her husband Boney Kapoor. There was an article about it in Himalayan News back then.

  28. Wooot! Mad props to Renu. :-) And to Ryan, Matt, Will, and the rest of The Tribe and Apex Fitness.

    Hey Denver Native–have you noticed that this post is really just a way of acknowledging the accomplishments of another in a creative area? And your multiple negative responses…well, there’s a word for that. Actually, there are several.

    So how about you can it, and let someone enjoy their moment of glory without being a douchbag, huh? I mean, “attention whore?” Really? Really?!