Today, my friend Brittany and I went to Chelsea studios to sample our first Bollywood dance class. For those of you that have been under a rock, Bollywood refers to the Hindi language film industry and is a slang term that comes from the joining of Hollywood and Bombay. Bollywood, largely based in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), is the largest film producer in India and is pretty huge throughout the world as well. Most Bollywood films are musicals and involve beautifully intricate song and dance sequences that are woven throughout the script. The genre has recently become more and more popular in America with the success of Slumdog Millionaire and Andrew Lloyd Weber's Bombay Dreams (not to mention So You Think You Can Dance, but I may be the only person that is a devoted watcher of that). Anyway, when Brittany received a "Groupon" (www.groupon.com) for a half price class, we decided to check it out.
Chelsea studios, to most New York actors, generally reeks of sweaty feet and desperation. A large number of auditions take place in those numerous studios on 26th street and the hallways are usually lined in stretching scantily clad dancers, pacing buzzing singers, and actors talking to themselves. We entered around 5:45pm and were pleasantly surprised that all the crazies had gone home for the evening and the place was veritably quiet. We signed up at the door (it was assumed that we had already paid and nobody checked anyway) and entered the large mirrored studio. I looked around as the students filed in. There was something fishy about the student composition of this dance class. After a few minutes, I realized what it was. There were NO dancers in it. Now, I've been dancing since I could walk, so I can spot a dancer (or former dancer, for that matter) from a mile away. And there were none (other than myself and Brittany) in the studio. There were about forty women and a few potential candidates for next season's Biggest Loser, but no dancers. This class was going to be interesting.
Our beautiful and petite teacher walked to the front of the class and introduced herself. The class we took was entitled Bolly Basics and is recommended to all newcomers to Bollywood dance. Priya, our teacher, explained that we would do a quick warm-up and then would learn an entire dance by the end of the class. She encouraged us to ask questions, leave the room and come back, and participate as much as we desired. She even smiled and said that we were welcome to chat while we danced if we wanted. Okay, I got it, she wanted us to have fun. Then she turned on some Indian club-like music with a driving beat and started with a step touch. We tried various easy movements during the warm-up, mostly dance steps with specific hand movements, but it was at least a little fun. Priya was funny and charming and made everyone young, old, big, and small in the room feel comfortable, "Feel free to add hips and shoulders to any movements if you want. In Bollywood, the more hips and shoulders, the better!" She explained that many of the steps we were learning were derived from classical Indian dances that were danced around harvest time, so many looked like harvesting plants or stamping soil, etc. I realized that there was much more to this Indian dance stuff than met the eye. Priya, obviously, knew much more than she was letting on, but managed to just hint at details of the dance and focused more on the having fun part. It helped that the technique of this genre of dance lent itself to being easily danced by a lay person. There were no pointed toes, piroettes, or high legs, just bouncing, hip shaking, and expressive hands. I could see where a dancer advanced in this technique could do much more than we were attempting in the class, but the movement was easy enough for most people to catch on and interesting enough to keep me engaged for an hour. Our routine (which we did, in fact, finish before the end of class) was politely sexy and actually a bit of an oblique workout. Priya translated the words of the song as we danced and laughed as we did a "throwing heart" movement, "women are always breaking men's hearts in Bollywood dance". The ladies in the room giggled and threw their imaginary mens' hearts to the floor with an arm flick and a hip shake.
We finished our dance and filed out of the room to the changing room where I heard murmurs of "that was fun" and "where's the next class?". I listened and realized I had enjoyed my introduction to Bollywood dance, but maybe not as much as the non-dancers. I planned to take a more advanced level the next time, but it's a rare and wonderful woman that up and decides to take an Indian dance class instead of just putting in an hour on the treadmill or the elliptical. I don't know if I were not a dancer if I would have the motivation to do so, but I was surrounded by women who did. I was inspired by their courage. Priya suggested some favorite Bollywood films to rent while a woman in her late fifties with dreadlocks put on her Birkenstocks (with socks!) and talked about the dance steps with a thin, hunched mousy looking girl of about twenty. We had all shared a lovely experience. It wasn't hard, it wasn't complex, and I will definitely not be adding Indian dance as a special skill on my resume. That wasn't the point. I had a fun time. That was.