So You Think You Can Dance – FAIL!

by Komal Thakkar – George Washington University

What is it about Bollywood dancing that attracts millions of viewers around the world? In essence, many people would probably say that there is a straightforward formula that every director should follow in order to produce a successful Bollywood dance scene.

Male and female frolicking and dancing around each other but never kissing + a minimum of four extremely colorful costume changes  + a minimum of twenty backup dancers + a lot of detailed hand and facial gestures = Perfect Bollywood dance scene.

But is it really that simple? Not only does Bollywood dance incorporate hip hop and jazz, but it also stays true to its Indian roots by including styles like Bhangra, Garba, Bharatnatyam, Kathak, and much more.

As a dance major, I have grown up in both American and Indian dance studios and have studied many different techniques. Perhaps one of the most distinct differences between Bollywood and Western dancing is the emphasis on intricate hand gestures, facial expressions and movements of the eyes found in Bollywood.  Western styles focus on larger movements like leaps, turns, extensions, inversions, and partnerwork. While Bhangra and Garba incorporate larger movements, a majority of Bollywood dancing focuses on detail.

Two years ago my favorite show, So You Think You Can Dance,  introduced its first Bollywood routine choreographed by Nakul Dev Mahajan. I witnessed the spread of Bollywood to American dance studios as it gained instant popularity. While it made me proud and excited to see dancers all across America embrace Bollywood, it disappoints me to see that as the show goes on through its seventh season, the term Bollywood has taken on a completely different meaning.

Every dance technique is an evolving artform that is continually developing. One style borrows from another, and each style has its own history. However, what happens when the style borrows too much from another?

The first Bollywood routine we saw on season four was choreographed to Dhoom Tana for two dancers, Joshua Allen and Katee Shean. We saw the characteristic boy/girl relationship, lots of bharatnatyam and bhangra, and costumes that perfectly captured Indian culture. Later that season, we saw a group routine with ten dancers that was performed even better than many of the Bollywood routines I have seen in the actual films. Season five brought us a duet to Jai Ho and a top five girls routine which amazed audiences once again.

After that, the numbers on season six and the three we’ve seen during this current season have been anything but authentic. They are full of tricks to appeal to mainstream audiences leaving me to wonder if America will really understand the history and cultural significance of Bollywood dancing. With way too much hip hop, gaudy costumes, and turns and lifts that you would only see in an elementary jazz routine, it is lacking the bharatnatyam, the garba, the bhangra, the kathak, the hand gestures, the culture, the boy/girl relationships, and the pure joy that a Bollywood dance should bring.

Here’s a suggestion So You Think You Can Dance: Take the time to expand your crop of Bollywood choreographers, explain to America what it is that is so characteristic about a Bollywood dance, and while you’re at it explain why doing leaps and tricks across the stage is completely inaccurate. How about throwing in some more Bollywood group numbers instead of so many duets? Think about it, are you really going to notice when two dancers tilt their head a certain way and hold their hands in classical Bharatnatyam positions in the huge Kodak theater? It is so much more powerful when a large group of people does it at the same time. Isn’t that why even the smallest of movements goes unnoticed in a Bollywood film thanks to the scores of backup dancers?

Shame on you So You Think You Can Dance for allowing the thousands of Americans who watch your show religiously to allow such a culturally significant artform become so commercialized!

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