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Bhangra Dance Classes

Vicki Virk offers Bay Area Bhangra dance classes in San Francisco & Berkeley, in addition to teaching at Kosmos Camp. Bhangra is a dance that comes originally from the Punjabi region in northern present day India.

IMG_6865w-MPunjabi wheat farmers danced and sang songs about village life to help pass the time while working in the fields. With time, these became part of harvest celebrations at Bhaisakhi (April 13) festivals, as the sight of their crops growing invigorated the farmers. From here the dance quickly moved through all divisions of class and education, eventually becoming a part of weddings, New Year parties, and other important occasions. Bhangra dance classes further spread the genre beyond the Punjab region.

Bhangra has developed as a combination of dances from different parts of the Punjab region. The term “Bhangra” now refers to several kinds of dances and arts, including Jhumar, Luddi, Giddha, Julli, Daankara, Dhamal, Saami, Kikli, and Gatka.  Jhumar, originally from Sandalbar, Punjab, comprises an important part of Punjab folk heritage. It is a graceful dance, based on a specific Jhumar rhythm. Dancers circle around a drum player while singing a soft chorus.  A person performing the Luddi dance places one hand behind his head and the other in front of his face, while swaying his head and arms. He typically wears a plain loose shirt and sways in a snake-like manner. Like a Jhumar dancer, the Luddi dancer moves around a droll player (drummer).

Bhangra has developed as a combination of dances from different parts of the Punjab region. The term “Bhangra” now refers to several kinds of dances and arts, including Jhumar, Luddi, Giddha, Julli, Daankara, Dhamal, Saami, Kikli, and Gatka. Bhangra dance classes thus can showcase varying Indian dance styles.  Jhumar, originally from Sandalbar, Punjab, comprises an important part of Punjab folk heritage. It is a graceful dance, based on a specific Jhumar rhythm. Dancers circle around a drum player while singing a soft chorus.  A person performing the Luddi dance places one hand behind his head and the other in front of his face, while swaying his head and arms. He typically wears a plain loose shirt and sways in a snake-like manner. Like a Jhumar dancer, the Luddi dancer moves around a droll player (drummer).

Women have a different but equally exuberant dance called Giddha. The dancers enact verses called bolis, representing a wide variety of subjects – everything from arguments with a sister-in-law to political affairs. The rhythm of the dance depends not only the drums, but also on the handclaps of the dancers.  Julli is a dance associated with Muslim holy men called pirs and is generally performed in their hermitages. Typically the dancers dress all in black, and perform Julli in a sitting posture, but it is sometimes also done around the grave of a preceptor. Julli is unique in that one person, alone, can perform the dance if he so desires.  Daankara is a dance of celebration, typically performed at weddings. Two men, each holding colorful staves, dance around each other in a circle while tapping their sticks together in rhythm with the drums.

Dancers also form a circle while performing Dhamal. They also hold their arms high, shake their shoulders and heads, and yell and scream. Dhamal is a true folk-dance, representing the heart of Bhangra.  Women of the Sandalbar region traditionally are known for the Saami. The dancers dress in brightly colored kurtas and full flowing skirts called lehengas. Like Daankara, Kikli features pairs of dancers, this time women. The dancers cross their arms, hold each other`s hands, and whirl around singing folk songs. Occasionally four girls join hands to perform this dance.

Gatka is a Sikh martial art in which people use swords, sticks, or daggers. Historians believe that the sixth Sikh guru started the art of gatka after the martyrdom of fifth guru Guru Arjan Dev. Wherever there is a large Khalsa Sikh population, there will be Gatka participants, often including small children and adults. These participants usually perform Gatka on special Punjabi holidays.

In addition to the complexity of different Bhangra dance traditions, a Bhangra performance typically contains many energetic stunts. The most popular stunt is called the moor, or peacock, in which a dancer sits on someone`s shoulders, while another person hangs from his torso by his legs. Two-person towers, pyramids, and various spinning stunts are also popular.  Traditionally, men wear a lungi while doing Bhangra. A lungi is a colorful piece of cloth wrapped around the waist. Men also wear a kurta, which is a long Punjabi-style shirt. In addition, men wear Bhugaris – also known as turbins – to cover their heads.

Women wear the traditional Punjabi dress, salvar kameez. A salvar kameez is composed of a long colorful shirt and baggy, vibrant pants. Women also wear duppattas, colorful pieces of cloth wrapped around the neck. Many Bhangra songs make references to the duppatta.

Bhangra Instruments

Many different Punjabi instruments contribute to the sound of Bhangra and often accompany Bhangra dance classes. Although the most important instrument is the dhol drum, Bhangra also features a variety of string and other drum instruments.  The primary and most important instrument that defines Bhangra is the dhol. The dhol is a large, high-bass drum, played by beating it with two sticks. The width of a dhol skin is about fifteen inches in general, and the dhol player holds his instrument with a strap around his neck.

The string instruments include the tumbi, sarangi, sapera, supp, and chimta. The dhad, dafli, dholki, and damru are the other drums. The tumbi, famously mastered by Amar Singh Chamkila, a famous Punjabi singer, is a high-tone, single-string instrument. Although it has only one string, mastering the tumbi takes many years. The sarangi is a multi-stringed instrument, somewhat similar to the violin. The sapera produces a beautiful, high-pitched stringy beat, while the supp and chimta add extra, light sound to Bhangra music. Finally, the dhad, dafli, dholki, and damru are instruments that produce more drum beats, but with much less bass than the droll drum.

Bhangra Lyrics

Bhangra lyrics, always sung in the Punjabi language, generally cover social issues such as love, relationships, alcohol, dancing, and marriage. Additionally, there are countless Bhangra songs devoted to Punjabi pride themes and Punjabi heroes. The lyrics are tributes to the rich cultural traditions of the Punjabis. In particular, many Bhangra tracks have been written about Udham Singh and Bhagat Singh. Less serious topics include beautiful ladies with their colorful duppattas, and dancing and drinking in the fields of the Punjab.  Bhangra singers do not sing in the same tone of voice as their Southeast Asian counterparts. Rather, they employ a high, energetic tone of voice. Singing fiercely, and with great pride, they typically add nonsensical, random noises to their singing. Likewise, often people dancing to Bhangra will yell phrases such as “Hey hey hey,” “Balle balle,” or “Hey aripa” to the music.

Bhangra in the Present Day

Bhangra has come a long way in the 20th Century and has recently taken the entertainment industry by storm. In the 1970s and 1980s, many Punjabi singers from Southeast Asia and the United Kingdom emerged, setting the stage for Bhangra to become a hot new trend in dance music. Modern Bhangra artists, in addition to recording and performing traditional Bhangra, have also fused Bhangra with other music genres, such as hip-hop, reggae, house, and drum-and-bass.  In the late 1960s and 1970s, several singers from the Punjab set the stage for Bhangra to become a mass phenomenon. These singers, some of whom are still active today, include Kuldip Manak, Amar Singh Chamkila, and A. S. Kang.

Bhangra in North America

Punjabi immigrants have encouraged the growth of Bhangra in the western hemisphere. However the Bhangra industry has not grown in North America nearly as much as it has grown in the United Kingdom. Indian Lion, a UK Bhangra artist explains why:

“The reasons there`s a lot of bands in England is because there`s a lot of work in England. In England the tradition that`s been going on for years now is that there`s weddings happening up and down the country every weekend, and it`s part of the culture that they have Bhangra bands come and play, who get paid 1800 quid a shot, you know. Most of the bands are booked up for the next two years. And England is a country where you can wake up in the morning and by lunchtime you can be at the other end of the country, it helps. In Canada it takes 3 days to get to the other side of the country, so there`s no circuit there. And it isn`t a tradition [in North America] to have live music at weddings. There are a few bands here that play a few gigs, but nothing major.”

However, with the emergence of North American Bhangra artists such as Jazzy Bains, Bhinda Jatt, and Sangeet Group, and the growth of the remix market, the future for Bhangra in this continent looks good.

Bhangra Competitions

Bhangra competitions have been held in the Punjab for many decades. However, now universities and other organizations have begun to hold annual Bhangra dance competitions in many of the main cities of the United States, Canada, and England. At these competitions, young Punjabis, other South Asians, and people with no South Asian background compete for money and trophies. In the West, unlike the Punjab, there is less emphasis on traditional Bhangra moves, but rather more focus on a general look of the dance; for example, many teams at these competitions perform several hip-hop moves. This synergy of the Bhangra dance with other cultures` parallels the music`s fusion with different genres. University competitions have experienced an explosion in popularity over the last three years (Bhangra Blowout, hosted by George Washington University on 1 April 2000, sold out to a crowd of 4,000 people, with scalpers reportedly getting $80 per ticket at the door), and help to promote the dance and music in mainstream culture.

Conclusion

Beginning as a form of lively folk music performed at harvests in the Punjab, Bhangra has evolved remarkably over the past five hundred years. The music now fully represents the culture of the Punjab region, and the struggles of its people in their long and storied history. Moreover, the music still evolves today, incorporating elements of many different kinds of music from around the world, while still existing in its traditional form. Thanks to this diversification, Bhangra now reaches a larger audience than ever, all over the world. Bhangra competitions at universities in England, Canada, and America, as well as Southeast Asia, help to further the dance`s popularity. A person can easily expect Bhangra to continue its movement into mainstream culture well into the 21st Century.