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Utah couple promoting India’s culture through a high-energy ‘happy dance’

The dance, traditional to northern India, is a calorie-burning cardio workout, where ‘the most important thing is smiling.’

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Advanced dance students at the Utah Punjabi Arts Academy practices a bhangra, a North Indian folk dance, on Saturday, Nov. 12. 2022, at South Valley Creative Dance Studio. The academy has been around for five years, and the advanced dancers maintain a fast-paced high-energy cadence as they prepare for upcoming performances.

It’s a Saturday, and the decisive, guiding beats of the dhol — a double-headed drum from India — and shouts of “hadippa” (a Punjabi word meaning “hooray”) reverberate through a Sandy dance studio.

The 11 advanced dancers in the class, wearing red and black, are in sync and barefoot as they move. Each leg lift and foot tap is imbued with elegance, each vocal cry packed with energy.

Keshav Sarin — co-founder of the Utah Punjabi Arts Academy with his wife, Leslie — adjusts the strap of his dhol, and tells the dancers, “This stuff we’re doing is really powerful.”

“This stuff” is bhangra, a folk dance native to the northern Indian state of Punjab, where it’s known as the “happy dance.” It’s a high-energy cardio workout, according to the Sarins. The Hindustan Times reported that a 40-to-45-minute session can burn between 500 and 800 calories.

“The most important thing is smiling,” said Leslie Sarin, who is also the academy’s dance director. The kids in the advanced class have learned that lesson — as their smiles, bright and beaming, are reflected in the mirror of the South Valley Creative Dance Studio.

In 2019, a dance group from UPAA traveled to Washington, D.C. (where the academy’s parent group is located) and won a competition.

“The reason why they won was not because of their technical ability,” said Leslie, who noted that the bhangra competition circuit is intense. “It’s because they had such joy, that it was like fireworks were coming out of them. These kids literally sparkled.”

Earlier this year, the Sarins visited India, and met with some of the most established bhangra dancers there. One of them told the Sarins “bhangra comes from your heart” — a principle, they say, they have made central to their academy’s work.

If people can dance from the heart, Leslie said, bhangra can be accessible to everyone.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Neal Chavan, left, and instructor Keshav Sarin, with the Utah Punjabi Arts Academy practice a bhangra, a folk dance from northern India, on Saturday, Nov. 12. 2022, at South Valley Creative Dance Studio.

Preserving a culture

The Sarins started UPAA five years ago, after being invited to perform a Punjabi folk dance at a Diwali festival in downtown Salt Lake City.

Keshav said he was learning to play the dhol from Amrinder Singh, a teacher at the D.C. academy. When he mentioned they had been asked to perform bhangra, Singh offered to teach them and sent a video. Leslie, who is a dancer, said she learned all the parts, along with the traditional clothing and props.

It was dance that brought the Sarins together in the first place, 20 years ago. Leslie had just moved to Utah, and took a Repertory Dance Theatre community class in African dance. She met Keshav, and they ended up in a drum class together, too.

“I thought she liked me,” Keshav said.

“I was into his drumming,” Leslie said in response.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dance instructor Leslie Sarin with the Utah Punjabi Arts Academy practices a bhangra, a folk dance from northern India, with her advanced students on Saturday, Nov. 12. 2022, at South Valley Creative Dance Studio.

The Diwali performance was such a success that parents asked them to open an academy — something of an “organic” evolution, the Sarins said. More importantly, they said, the dancers loved it.

That first performance featured six dancers. The academy now has 30 students, down from around 50 before the pandemic, they said. They offer three bhangra classes — a beginners’ class for kids, another one for community members, and an advanced-level class — and a class in playing the dhol.

One of the beautiful things about bhangra, they said, is that anyone can do it; the community class ranges from kids to an 80-year-old.

“Bhangra is a folk dance,” Leslie said. “So it’s inherently a community dance, because folk is from the people. That’s what it was meant to be. Dancing together, you create such a better community. When you move together, there’s greater empathy and compassion. It develops all these qualities that then make the group more accepting of each other.”

The classes attract people of different ethnicities, though Keshav and Leslie (who is white) are conscious of issues of cultural appropriation and aim to preserve bhangra in its most authentic form. When Leslie first started learning about bhangra, she was hesitant because she didn’t want to appropriate Indian culture, but she said as she learned, her instructors shared that they wanted more people to adopt the dance.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Priya Sullivan, right, holds a khunda along with fellow dancers as the Utah Punjabi Arts Academy practices a bhangra, a folk dance from northern India, on Saturday, Nov. 12. 2022, at South Valley Creative Dance Studio. The academy has been around for five years, and the advanced dancers maintain a fast-paced high-energy cadence as they prepare for upcoming performances.

“That culture is important, otherwise it’s going to get lost and morph into something else,” Keshav said, adding that bhangra is “somewhat of a disappearing art.”

The Sarins’ efforts to highlight authentic bhangra dance has taken UPAA to the Living Traditions Festival, the Mondays in the Park series at Liberty Park, and yearly Diwali festivals. This year, they have been asked to perform at the Holi (Festival of Colors) event at the Sri Sri Radha Krishna Temple in Spanish Fork.

The performance, they said, will add an authentic sense of cultural representation to the event. They first attended the Spanish Fork festival 12 years ago, but weren’t impressed — the event doesn’t match with how Holi is traditionally celebrated.

“After a few minutes, it’s not fun,” Keshav said, because the people there don’t know how to play. After that, Leslie said they took their family to the Sri Ganesha Hindu Temple celebration in South Jordan instead.

For many, the elements of folk dance have been modified to the times and adopted by the mainstream — particularly in Bollywood movies, Keshav said. So bhangra dance groups have split into two camps: those who fuse the old and the new, and those (like UPAA) who stick to the authentic, traditional forms.

“These dances have evolved for the last 50 years,” Keshav said. “They started off by clearly segregating men’s and women’s dance.”

Bhangra is special, Keshav said, because “when you see someone dance bhangra, you just can’t help but smile and have this urge to do this, because this is so contagious.”

Bhangra, Leslie said, is a form “that really appeals to men,” which is different from American culture, where “men don’t dance.” Bhangra, she added, is “accessible because it’s strong, athletic and energetic.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Team captain Kunal Kamtekar with the Utah Punjabi Arts Academy practices a bhangra, a folk dance from northern India, on Saturday, Nov. 12. 2022, at South Valley Creative Dance Studio.

Second-generation knowledge

The academy, the Sarins said, is also giving second-generation South Asian children — like the Sarins’ two kids — a way to identify with their parents’ cultures.

For example, Abhay Goel saw UPAA’s performance at the 2021 Living Traditions Festival (one of several events where the academy’s dancers perform every year). Goel, who moved to Salt Lake City during the pandemic, is second-generation Indian American, and taught himself bhangra in college. He signed up for the academy’s advanced class.

Goel said he was struck by the Sarins’ expertise — something that’s apparent during practice, as Keshav gives a student tips on the dhol while Leslie guides dancers by answering questions about certain formations.

“Having people in the community who are willing to pass this knowledge down is completely invaluable,” Goel said. “There’s no substitute for it.”

“For the second generation South Asian kids, it’s very difficult for them to relate to what it means to be a South Asian,” Keshav said. “They’ve seen their parents grow and talk about being an Indian or a South Asian, but it’s very difficult for them to know they’re not grown up there.”

The Sarins’ hope, Keshav said, is to give those kids a community, “a reason to relate to who they are and who their parents are — which, otherwise, is very hard to find.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dancers in the advanced class at Utah Punjabi Arts Academy practice a high-energy bhangra, a folk dance from northern India, Saturday, Nov. 12, 2022.

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