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Duke Dhamaka dances to D.C.

It is the NCAA Tournament of the bhangra world. Similar to college basketball teams' dream of reaching the Final Four, bhangra dance teams want to make it to Bhangra Blowout, the national bhangra dancing competition held annually in Washington, D.C. Tomorrow afternoon, Duke Dhamaka will be the Gonzaga of the contest, competing against nine bhangra powerhouses in its first Blowout appearance.


   Only a year and a half old, Duke Dhamaka--which means excitement in sound and beat in Hindi and has the connotation of craziness--is a young team to make it to Blowout. Additionally, although some of the group's members may have previous dance experience, most of them had never danced bhangra prior to joining Dhamaka.


   What they may lack in experience, however, they make up in devotion and enthusiasm.


   "The students are very dedicated and talented. They've got a really good spirit, a competitive spirit, but also have a lot of fun when they're doing it," said Mekhala Natavar, Dhamaka's faculty advisor and assistant professor of the practice of Asian and African languages and literature. "You can really see that camaraderie... inside and outside of the dance space."


   The tight group dynamics stem not only from the fact they practice so often--twice a week for three hours each time--but also because the members are such good friends.


   "We're basically a group of friends more so than a team. We're a group of friends that love to dance," said junior Raj Vasnani, Dhamaka captain and choreographer. "That's the main reason why I think the dancers have such a great time on the team. It's about displaying our heritage and having fun."


   Bhangra, a traditional farmer's folk dance that originated in the Punjab region of northern India, combines elements of Hindi, bhangra and hip-hop music as well as traditional dance aspects--such as the wrist flicking and scarf flickering--with a modern hip-hop twist. Although it is not yet considered a mainstream dance genre in India, bhangra is gaining rapid popularity in the United States, especially because it allows dancers to connect to their heritage.


   "Like reggae connects people to their roots in Africa, this music links people from America to their roots," said Sachin Bansal, a junior from Punjab who has studied bhangra academically. "These are westernized South Asians that are [using] a traditional dance to unify other South Asians and introduce these dances to people of other ethnicities and races who've never experienced this before."


   Bhangra seems to be working its magic on campus both on members of the team themselves--many of Dhamaka's dancers are not from Punjab, but from other Indian regions and Pakistan--but also the Duke community, which has rallied to support the new dance group. Diya, the campus' South Asian-American student's organization, is subsidizing $20 of the $30 ticket for any interested student to go to Blowout and cheer on Dhamaka. Approximately 50 students will be traveling to Washington, D.C. tomorrow, all attracted to this dance with energetic moves and impressive stunts set to the pulsing beats.


   "Bhangra as a dance technically is not extremely difficult--it's a largely energetic dance, so if you can express energy while still looking graceful, you can do it well," Vasnani said. "That's why it's becoming such a huge craze, because bhangra music is easy to dance to--the moves aren't that difficult, it's more of a display. That's what makes it so fun."


   The parts that may amaze the audience the most are the stunts where the girls are lifted over the guys' heads or guys twirl around in a pinwheel. This more modern, non-traditional part of bhangra dancing is actually the distinguishing factor among bhangra teams.


   "A lot of moves tend to be traditional bhangra moves you see performed by other dancers, but the interesting twists we add are the stunts, the lines and the formations," Vasnani said. "When you're all technically sound and together, it looks really good. That's what we try to focus on, rather than where to put your hands--more so how the team looks in general, rather than how he or she looks. It's very team-oriented."


   The dancers will have to maximize this team cohesion and dance in perfect synchrony this weekend when they face their competitors, veteran Blowout schools like George Washington University and Columbia University. To some members, just qualifying for the competition is an accomplishment from which they are still reeling.


   "I'm still in shock because we've come so far. We're such a young team. All the other teams we're going to compete against have been dancing for so long. If we win Blowout, we would not only shock ourselves but everyone else. We're the underdogs because no one knows about us," said Dhamaka member Harshada Rajani, a freshman. "Our nerves are so high because we're so excited but at the same time, so scared."

Not only the members are having trouble quelling their nervousness and excitement--Natavar, who has judged numerous bhangra competitions, said she is too. However, she has complete confidence in the team's ability this weekend.


   "I can barely eat when I think about it.... We're really excited," she said. "When I saw them dance in the competition in Durham, my heart was palpitating and my hair was standing on end because I [saw] perfection. I don't think it's artificial--I can say with 100 percent commitment that these guys are the best. I have a good feeling about them winning."


   Although the accomplishment of qualifying for Blowout is huge in itself--the team tried last year but did not make it--and winning the competition would make this success even sweeter, team members do not think they will lose any motivation after this weekend, whatever the outcome may be.


   "The pride associated with being the best of the best would motivate us to keep doing what we're good at," Vasnani said. "But the purpose of creating this team is not to go out and win and get prizes. We created this because 16 of us could put together a great dance in an organized fashion that we could be proud of."


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