Lisner Auditorium was filled with movement, color, dazzle and (ear-splitting) sound during Saturday night’s 21st annual Bhangra Blowout. Eight colleges vied for championship of Bhangra Blowout XXI. University of Virginia reprised its win from Bhangra Blowout XX, Carnegie Mellon University placed second, and UCLA’s Bruin Bhangra placed third. The evening closed with a headliner performance by South Asian a cappella group, Penn Masala.
Without some understanding of the music, costumes, dance moves and props used in Bhangra, watching performances can become sensory overload. Once broken down, however, the beauty of each component can be appreciated.
Bhangra is an amalgam of several types of dance from the Punjab region of India. Folkloric bhangra was exported to other countries via emigrees in the 1980s. During its evolution in the West, unlike in the Punjab, there is less emphasis on traditional songs and more focus on the flow of a mix; many teams mix traditional bhangra music with hip-hop or rock songs. This synergy of the bhangra dance with other cultures parallels the music’s fusion with different genres.
At the base of bhangra are traditional moves probably familiar to anyone with slight exposure to south asian culture. The moves involve, but are not limited to, repeated deep squats mixed with high, butt-kicking, jumps and upright dancing with extension of the legs to the side with feet in flexed position. Stylized hand movements and use of specific traditional props, including saaps and khunda, add to the technical difficulty.
Saaps are small expanding gate-type mechanisms grasped by the handles and opened and closed to create a loud clapping noise. Dancers clap the swaps while doing jumps, squats and other movements to display power and synchronicity. Khunda are five foot long sticks that are used to add visual interest and show increased complexity of the dance.
Each team’s eight to ten minute performance was clearly an athletic as well as cultural feat. Glimpses of various foot, ankle and knee supports under the dancers’ costumes reinforced my inner “ouches” after each repeated sequence of the many deep squats and jumps.
The sold-out audience’s love of Bhangra and the a cappella group, Penn Masala, seemed bottomless. I preferred Penn Masala’s Hindi pieces displaying more traditional use of a cappella technique to their English pieces which seemed to lack subtlety.
Hosted by the GWU South Asian Society, Bhangra Blowout XXI is one of the largest events at GW and one of the largest run student events of its kind in the United States.
The next Bhangra Blowout is definitely worth checking out.
Running Time: Two hours and fifteen minutes, with one intermission.
Bhangra Blowout XXI was performed for one night only, April 5, 2015 at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium,-730 21st Street NW, in Washington, DC. For upcoming events at Lisner Auditorium, visit their website.