Film and music meet in new co-ed Bollywood dance team

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By Jacob Axelrad, Daily Community Culture Editor
Published October 3, 2011

The songs and dances from one of the world’s largest film industries are now embodied in Manzil, the University’s first co-ed Bollywood dance team. Manzil means “dream” or “goal” in Hindi, and according to Ross School of Business junior Nikhil Kulkarni, who serves as a co-captain of the team, the name was chosen because it simply flows well with the word “Michigan.”

Bollywood dance originates with the films produced in Mumbai, India. While in the United States the music and film industries are mostly separate, Bollywood movies are more reminiscent of classic Broadway shows: the standard components of character, plot and resolution combined with an element of song and dance.

“The film and music industry in India is basically intertwined,” said LSA junior and team co-captain Dhwani Joshi. “Instead of a Kanye West song, there’s the latest Bollywood song.”

What began last semester as an idea among nine students with a passion for Bollywood dance has nearly doubled in size. Manzil now takes its place among numerous similar teams at schools ranging from UCLA and California — Berkeley on the West Coast to NYU on the East Coast. And with Manzil’s emergence, the number of teams around the state has only increased. Soon after the group’s inception last March, Michigan State University and Wayne State University started their own teams, marking Manzil as the trendsetter for schools in the region.

As Joshi explains it, Bollywood dance encompasses two distinct categories: traditional and Fusion. Traditional Bollywood dance is Manzil’s category of choice.

Whereas the influential Indian American Student Association (IASA) stands as an on-campus performing arts organization committed to promoting social causes on campus, Manzil has a distinct mission as a competitive performance group. Though cultural awareness plays a role in Manzil’s philosophy, it enters the campus landscape exclusively through performances and dance workshops. In addition, unlike IASA’s annual culture show, which typically features a variation of Bollywood dance and allows anyone to participate, Manzil holds auditions. It has to — it represents the University throughout the state and, ultimately, the country.

But gaining acceptance to these competitions is no easy task for the team. And per University precedent, holding a competition here on campus would involve getting another student group to host the event on Manzil’s behalf — a difficult feat, but one Manzil hopes to tackle soon enough.

“As a first-year team, it’s pretty hard to get into a competition,” said LSA junior and co-captain Parin Shah. “Our biggest goal this year is to make one competition and see where it goes. The whole application process is pretty nerve-wracking.”

At this stage, the important thing is to hone the dances themselves so they’re ready for performance and competition. Thus far, teaching the steps and routines has been easy, mostly due to the fact that many team members grew up with some form of Bollywood dance in their lives.

“A lot of us learned from dancing at weddings and gatherings,” Shah said. “It’s really common to do Bollywood dance at weddings since (the songs) are usually love stories.”

Yet neither prior dance experience nor affiliation with Bollywood is a prerequisite for joining. Like the Indian dance style itself, there are no set standards for how people go about practicing Bollywood dance. According to Kulkarni, right now Manzil’s style has a “jazzy feel.” But that’s simply one approach. It all depends on the dancers’ preferences.

From a competition standpoint, what really matters are the stories told through the dances — after all, this is an art form that stems from film. While Manzil has yet to finalize their themes, Shah emphasized that they will be love stories, following in the footsteps of customary Bollywood choreography. The specifics, however, remain secret.

“We try to keep our themes and stories on the down-low,” Shah said. “For competition, it’s important to keep that 'wow' factor.”

Manzil’s appearance comes at a time when Bollywood is slowly gaining traction among American audiences. TV series like ABC’s “Dancing With The Stars” and FOX’s “So You Think You Can Dance” have even begun to work Bollywood routines into their episodes.

But at the end of the day, the team remains grounded as a student group, doing its part to represent the University and educate its members about the joys of Bollywood.

“The first thing we like to emphasize is that you don’t really need any experience to dance with us,” Joshi said. “Even though we’re a competitive team, if you see our practices, we’re always just having fun … dancing to Bollywood songs.”