A growing number of first and second generation Americans are keeping in touch with their cultural roots through dance. At the University of Pennsylvania, students of Indian and South Asian heritage can join a dance group that participate in national and regional competitions.
When they're getting ready for a competition, the members of PennDhamaka can spend up to 8 hours a day rehearsing. In one part of their routine, the group's 12 members line up in a row: a wooden stick in each hand. The dancers sweep across the floor of the tiny studio, hitting their sticks together, against the floor, and against sticks held by other dancers, as the dance master keeps the rhythm.
"Five, six, seven, eight!" he calls, as he coaches them to extend their arms. "Get the arms higher, let's not cheat this! This is not the sort of only moving the elbows business. This is all they way up, all the way up both times! Again!"
Every movement is precisely choreographed, and many can be traced back to ancient Indian dances. In fact, most of the group's routines are based on traditional Indian and South Asian dances, even when the music is more hip-hop than Hindi.
At one point, the group divides into two teams. One performs an urban step routine. The other six dancers respond with the traditional style called Bharata Natyam.
"They're both styles that lend themselves well to a beat, a lot of clapping, a lot of stomping," sophomore Salman Khotari explains. "So we saw the parallel between the two dances, we put them next to each other, and it works out very well."
He says they get a great reaction from South Asian American audiences. "They've seen step dancing, they've seen Bharata Natyam, and when they see the two fused together, they get really excited about it."
PennDhamaka's members come from diverse backgrounds. Some were born in the U.S., while others came to America for college or moved with their families when they were children. Khotari says dancing gives them a way to keep in touch with their roots. "These competitions and these shows around the country have really been a means to unite the young South Asian community at all these different colleges to come together and really show off their culture, come together and have pride in the fact that they're South Asian Americans."
Salman Khotari's parents were born in Pakistan and moved to America before he was born. Khotari was raised in California, home to a fairly large South Asian community. He says he's always identified strongly with his cultural background, and joined PennDhamaka during his freshman year.
His friend Anoop Kumar had a different experience growing up. His parents are from India, but Kumar says he's always identified more with America than South Asia. "I was actually born in Indiana. Moved to Colorado when I was little," he explains. "So where I'm from, in a community of about 120, 150,000 people, [I] probably know every single Indian person in the city, because there's only probably about 50."
Kumar grew up in a traditional Indian household, and speaks a little Hindi. But he didn't really join in when people would dance at Indian parties or weddings. When Kumar's parents came to visit him at school one weekend, they dragged him to see PennDhamaka. He was so impressed that he decided to try out for the team, and when he made it, he says his parents went crazy.
During a recent competition, his whole family bought tickets to fly across country to see him perform. "They love it," he says with a laugh. "They're really obsessed with Dhamaka." Khotari, who serves as business manager for the group, remembers selling him tickets. "And I remember him writing me [a big] check, and I [said] 'How many people are coming?' He [said], 'My entire family from here, here, and here is flying out to come see me.' So they're very supportive."
PennDhamaka has won a number of regional dance competitions and recently participated in a national "Best of the Best" showcase. But Khotari says competition is not the group's primary focus. "It's really about the unity that's involved, and the fact that there are others out there like you." He indicates his friend, who grew up where he was the only South Asian American in his high school.
PennDhamaka's mission is to share South Asian culture with the larger community. But the dancers have a personal mission as well. As Salman Khotari explains, "You want to preserve that part of you that you really don't know that much about, but you know it's a part of you. You know that when you were brought up, that there were certain values in you and certain rituals and traditions that you've been surrounded by that if you don't actively pursue, you're going to lose." He cites dancing and going to a mosque or temple as examples.
Khotari hopes to continue dancing after he graduates. While Indian dance groups are popping up on college campuses across the country, there aren't that many opportunities for young adults to join groups. But that may be changing. Several former PennDhamaka members have created a dance troupe for working professionals in Washington D.C. They practice a few nights a week after work, and have even performed in some college-level competitions.