The scene outside the Orpheum theater last Saturday looked like any other night before a show. People lined up in the cold. Security guards waved metal detectors around puffy black coats, while women and men opened up their (usually black) backpacks and purses for inspection. Shuffling through the doors, people began peeling off black gloves to dig out their tickets.
While I scrounged around in the pocket of my own black coat to find my ticket, a flash of color caught my eye. Across the lobby, a performer hurried backstage—his red and silver fan-like headdress, called a turla, caught the light. It was only a tiny preview of what was to come at the 2018 Boston Bhangra competition.
Bhangra is a form of dance and music that began in the fields of the Punjabi regions of Pakistan and India. Originally a harvest dance among farmers, it has grown into a world-wide phenomenon, complete with its own competitions, pop and hip-hop stars, and well-connected internet community.
Celebrating its 15th year, Boston Bhangra selected 11 teams from the US and Canada to compete this time out, ranging from traditional troupes to more modern dance groups, co-ed to all-male troupes. Amit Bhambi, who co-founded the competition with his siblings, told DigBoston he wanted this year’s competition to be a celebration for everyone, both those familiar with Bhangra and people who have never seen it before.
Entering the auditorium, I caught more glimpses of color. A few women wore traditional jewelry, while other performers dressed up in pag turbans and jugi waistcoats mingled with family members and acquaintances. There were yellow salwaar pants and purple kameez blouses.
As I took my seat, I noticed something else. The air smelled ever so sweetly of butter chicken. To my right, a man sat with a styrofoam takeout carton filled to the brim with rice and chicken. Another man strolled by with a cane in one hand, a mango lassi in the other. The concessions stands weren’t serving M&Ms or popcorn here, but cartons of saag paneer, naan, and goat curry.
Though the event’s website declared in all caps that the show would being at 6 pm “SHARP,” everyone was still mingling about chatting and eating at 6:09. I started talking to the couple behind me. Recently married, Elizabeth Lamontagne and Aneesh Sahni danced Bhangra together in college, where they started the Princeton Bhangra Team.
Sahni explained the various segments that most routines would include. “See those accordion-like things? Those are sapps or shikke,” he said, pointing to a performer lingering in one of the aisles. “Every team will have a sapp segment.”
Sahni also pointed out a few performers holding long staffs with small flags (usually red or white) tied to the end. “Those are khunde, or daangs,” he said, adding that each team would also have a segment to display their skill with daangs.
Lamontagne added that while some segments of each routine are meant to show off skill with quick, challenging movements, other, slower parts of each routine will feature slower, more graceful choreography.
“It all depends on the team,” she said. When she and Sahni were dancing at Princeton a few years ago, they tried to make the cut for the Boston Bhangra competition, but to no avail. “You have to send in an audition tape,” Lamontagne said. “We would have been really really excited to perform here. Boston Bhangra is really well known.”
Anil Kundal, co-president of the BU Bhangra team, said that though BU is local, they haven’t sent a team to Boston Bhangra for a few years because they only wanted to come if they knew they’d be ready for the competition.
“We take pride and passion in what we do,” Kundal said. “We’ve been practicing since the summer, about six months now.”
At 6:20, an announcer warned everyone to find their seats, as the competition would begin in five minutes. “Wow, 6:25 … that’s pretty timely for these things,” Sahni said with a note of surprise. “Indian standard time is a real thing,” he told me.
“We once went to a Bhangra competition in California that started an hour and a half late,” Lamontagne added as proof. But by 6:30 the Boston Bhangra competition was officially underway, and minutes later the first troupe took to the stage, the Boston Bhangra Juniors or “BBJ.” As they settled into their opening positions, one dancer called out “Bhangra! Bhangra! Bhangra!” and was joined by enthusiastic Bhangra fans and dancers in the audience, who shouted “Bhangra!” in return.
As the music began and the dancers started to hop side to side, there wasn’t a still moment on stage—or in the room—for the rest of the night. Bhangra is a highly energetic dance, and from the moment the music begins to the very last beat of the dhol drum, the dancers do not stop moving. Even when they pose at the end, they bounce their arms ever so slightly.
Moving through complicated formations, chanting sequences, unison choreography, and seamless prop changes, each team brought an incredible enthusiasm to the stage, riling up the audience and deserving their thunderous applauses. One feature of the Boston Bhangra competition, Kundal explained, are the gimmicks. A few teams brought moving vehicles on stage, like a mini John Deere tractor carrying a tall trophy or a rickshaw carrying a family. The BU team paid a tribute to the Boston Red Sox in their routine.
After a performance by G Sidhu (who danced himself in the Boston Bhangra competition just a few years ago, according to Bhambi), the judges announced the winners. Taking first place was team Nachdi Jawani from Ontario, followed by Apna Bhangra Crew (ABC) from Washington state and Boston’s own BU Bhangra in third place.
I asked Kundal and his co-president Devin Dhawan if the after-party was the best part and they strongly protested. “Dancing up there is all that matters. It’s our joy, our passion.”