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The best of both worlds at Princeton Bhangra

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Courtesy of Zoe Berman

A group of 10 or so dancers — all clad in colorful costumes under violet lighting — twirled and jumped around the stage of Frist Theatre, moving in sync with South Asian dance music and the occasional flash of strobe lights. 

Princeton Bhangra, Princeton’s South Asian cultural dance group, held its fourth annual performance on the nights of April 13 and 15. The 90-minute-long show, titled “Kitaab: Let the Stories Unfold,” featured six energetic dance numbers, complete with vivid costumes and props. 

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Bhangra, a folk dance originating from Punjab, Pakistan, is characterized by lively thrusts, jumps, and hops; dancers constantly bounce on the balls of their bare feet to the beat of fast-paced, rhythmic music. As a result, unlike other campus dance performances, which often switch between slow-paced and fast-paced choreographies, every number in “Kitaab” was packed with energy. As I watched, I found myself marveling at how the dancers were able to sustain their stamina through six or seven minutes of frenetic, nonstop movement. (Indeed, the physical intensity of Bhangra means the dance doubles as a form of exercise.)

The performance was also filled with rich detail. The costumes — traditional Punjabi outfits called “vardi” — were gorgeously colorful, appearing in shades of pink, purple, green, and other vibrant colors. At times, the dancers twirled long staffs called “daang” and opened and closed accordion-like props called “saap” to produce snapping sounds to the beat of the music.

Speaking of the music: Princeton Bhangra’s soundtrack was another highlight of “Kitaab.” Although the group performed to traditional Bhangra mixes, they also danced to Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito” (yes, the 2017 summer hit), Sheck Wes’s “Mo Bamba,” and Ayo and Teo’s “Rolex.” The modern touches sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t — the tempo of “Despacito” dragged a little too slow for the high-paced dance, but “Rolex” was a delightfully irreverent fit for the Bhangra treatment. 

Indeed, because Bhangra is a relatively new art form — it only was invented in the early 1900s — the dance is still evolving rapidly, including in its music choices. “Bhangra lends itself well to more modern music because its entire dance style is meant to be energetic,” Princeton Bhangra member Abhi Vellore ’25 said. 

I would also be remiss not to mention the intermission of “Kitaab.” To kick things off, the Tigerlilies, a female a cappella group, gave a show-stopping performance of Caroline Polachek’s “So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings”; Head Prospect Editor Claire Shin ’25 anchored the rendition with a lovely solo. 

Yet the real surprise of the evening came when Bhangra President Akash Kotian ’24 and Jairam Hathwar ’25 roused a good half of the audience to come onstage, where they received a quick lesson on how to dance a basic, 16-beat Bhangra choreography. 

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“During the intermission, we get to engage with the audience and teach them cool moves,” Hathwar said. “This type of intermission is something unique to Princeton Bhangra.” 

As might be expected, some of the audience members couldn’t seem to move with the requisite amount of enthusiasm; other audience members had the right attitudes but perhaps not the right arm movements. After the halftime show, I gained a newfound appreciation for the skill required to pull off the dances I was watching. 

But isn’t that the whole point? Bhangra is both an accessible exercise movement quickly spreading beyond South Asia and a cultural art form requiring precision, artistry, and athleticism to truly excel. At Princeton Bhangra’s “Kitaab,” I’m glad I was able to see the best of both worlds. 

Joshua Yang is an associate editor for The Prospect at the ‘Prince.’ He can be reached at joshuayang@princeton.edu or on Twitter at @joshuaqyang.

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