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Beating the Dhol drums with Non Stop Bhangra

Most Westerners have been exposed to Bollywood, the lively cinematic musical-soap-operas that are iconic to the movie industry in Mumbai, India. However, few have gone beyond the screen and experienced first-hand the infectious music and dance that inspire some of the famous scenes from Bollywood films.

With the help of the San Francisco-based Dholrhythms dance company and the monthly dance party Non Stop Bhangra, the Punjabi art form of Bhangra is gaining exposure here in the Bay Area.

The atmosphere is eclectic on a Thursday night in the Mission. Cars roll by 22nd and Mission streets, cyclists weave in and out of traffic, friends call to each other from across the street, and a band plays in a small café. The lights are off on the first floor of the dark green Skechers building, but a rhythmic thumping comes from the second story. Head up the stairs, and you’ll see a smiling petite Indian woman with long, wavy black hair dancing in slow motion while a small group of students mirror her movements.

Dholrhythms co-founder Vicki Virk counts off, arms sweeping through the air from left to right and toes tapping on the floor of the large dance studio.

“Drop your shoulders. Walk,” she says as the music starts. The students are intoxicated by the primal music pouring forth from the speakers. 

Virk grew up in Punjab, and naturally took the music and dance of Punjabi farmers known and Bhangra. She used to practice corporate law, but she quit the profession so she could teach the exuberant Indian dance.

“It’s not one of those things where you need to have a specific venue or place to go do it,” she says. “It’s part of family life – it’s part of celebrations.”

“It has become the thing that Punjabis are recognized for,” says Suman Raj, the other co-founder of Dholrhythms. “Say Punjabi, automatically it’s Bhangra.”

Unlike Virk, Suman grew up in Fiji and was drawn into Bhangra by marrying into a Punjabi family. She was drawn in by the big movements, the heavy beat of the Dhol drum, and the seemingly inherent joy in the dance. That’s what drew dance student Helen Block of San Francisco, too.

Block is picking up the moves, which she says is less difficult compared to belly dance or ballet.

“There’s maybe 10 basic moves and then a few arm moves, and once you get it down, my God you can actually dance,” Block says.

Beginner Tim O’Brien is learning Bhangra for an Indian wedding.

“I’m going to a wedding in India, in New Delhi, so I thought I’d try and learn a couple dance steps before I went,” he says.

More experienced dancers trickle in dressed in graceful women with bangles and long, flowing skirts. This is the Dholrhythms dance troupe, practicing for a weekend performance.

At that performance, Virk, Raj and the Dholrhythms teach Bhangra to a different crowd at The Rickshaw Stop, a club near San Francisco’s Civic Center. It’s crowded to near capacity with partygoers who watch the stage and shuffle in attempted mimicry.

This is Non Stop Bhangra, a night of dance lessons, performers, a live Dhol drummer, DJs who mix the music with hip hop, house and reggae, and of course, constant dancing.

“I just think it’s such a beautiful form of music and dance. It has some amazing energy to it,” Virk says. “It just uplifts you, regardless of where you’re from, what age you are, your gender.”

Some traditionalists might be hesitant to lend Bhangra to other forms but no matter how it’s hybridized, Bhangra will always be iconic of Punjabi culture, according to Virk. She says that instead of relinquishing tradition, Non Stop Bhangra is an invitation to others into the Punjabi family.

This story originally aired on January 13, 2010. 

Crosscurrents San FranciscoIndia
Erica Mu is a reporter and producer for the "Hear Here: A Pop-Up Radio Project" in conjunction with KALW and the Association of Independents in Radio. Mu has reported on the serious side of health and the quirky side of arts, and she's also helped KALW pioneer the digital frontier as the news team’s web strategist and editor. Mu has also organized and directed KALW’s live storytelling events.