Before the music started playing and the dancers took the stage at the 11th annual Bhangra in the Heights on Saturday night, one of the night’s emcees, Kriti Kumar, CC ’20, asked, “How many Punjabis here tonight?”
The crowd’s response was overwhelmingly enthusiastic, showing that a good deal of those who’d come to Bhangra in the Heights were coming for a celebration of their culture.
Bhangra in the Heights, a Columbia-hosted event featuring dance troupes from different schools (in this case, Columbia, MIT, Princeton, Yale, and University of Connecticut), focuses on performances in the Bhangra style. Bhangra itself is a style of dance and music with roots in the folk traditions of India’s Punjab region. However, the style has grown over time to become a popular form of music and dance with transcontinental appeal.
So while the Punjabi members of the crowd were right to show enthusiasm for the celebration of their culture’s invention, they were by no means the only ones with good reason to be excited for the performances to come.
The first performance alone made this message abundantly clear. The Yale Jashan Bhangra team took the stage, walking on to “Lemon” by N.E.R.D. and Rihanna, one of the first signs that these performances would have a contemporary edge. What followed was an interesting juxtaposition of tradition and modernity. The costumes, a bright arrangement of red, purple, green, blue, yellow, and turquoise robes, along with the dancing all seemed to reflect the practices of a deeply-rooted tradition, but the music told a different story, incorporating dance beats that sounded as though they’d be as comfortable at Electric Zoo as they were at this cultural celebration. It seems that the dance groups understood this too, as they would often mix snippets of contemporary pop into their medleys of Bhangra tunes.
Ultimately, it was the intense energy of the music and the dynamic way the dancers adjusted to it that transformed these performances into something exciting, something more than just a celebration of tradition. This energy also proved the key differentiating factor of the night. While most of the teams followed precedent by adhering to the the formal qualities of Yale’s performance—brightly-colored costumes, expressive dance moves, spirited Bhangra tunes—the groups were divided on the energy with which they presented all this. The Columbia team’s performance was equally memorable, including complex dance moves with acrobatic flair.
Overall though, the night was not meant to be a competition, but a showcase. It was a celebration of Bhangra, both for those steeped in it and those discovering it for the first time. And on that level, each performance was its own success.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article included value judgements about the performances that did not conform to rubrics typically used to evaluate Bhangra performances. After conversations with Bhangra leaders, these passages have been removed.