As laughter echoed in the lobby of the Katzen Arts Center, I began to ponder collective nouns. If a group of crows is a murder and a group of owls is a parliament, what would the term be for a group of undergraduates? No word came to mind, so I christened the gathered American University students a “headache.” And this headache intensified my anxiety about trying out for the school’s Bhangra team. Dance wasn’t my strong suit, but I believed my Punjabi background was a latent superpower I was about to uncover.
I crept over to the lobby wall, all the while never taking my eyes off the youths. The shorts, yoga pants, and sports bra straps peeking out of cotton shirts made me self-conscious in my khakis and button-down shirt. At 24 years old, I was probably not the ideal candidate for this university dance team. I was an adult (more or less) with experience in the working world—a grad student in the department of literature. Though not much older, the age gap felt like a chasm. Adulthood came with a healthy dose of social anxiety, an inability to take the plunge, head into a group of strangers to say, “hi.” I opened my copy of La Princesse de Clèves and pretended the homework for my Novel Seminar was engrossing.
A young Indian girl, the team captain, waved her arms over her head to get our attention. Her thick black hair was pulled back into a ponytail. A thin film of black kohl outlined her large dark-brown eyes. I already knew her type: a sweet Indian girl who was using dance as a creative outlet while she pursued a practical major at the behest of her immigrant parents. Though I only had one desi parent, I had been witness to enough second-generation kids to know the family dynamic. In case you’re losing count, that’s one Indian immigrant parent (my father) and one non-Indian parent (my white/Midwestern mother). That equals one mixed daughter with serious identity issues and a lingering sense of inadequacy when it comes to 50 percent of her background.
Dancing had always interested me, ever since that one Saturday we visited my father’s friends in Potomac, Maryland. I was ordered to play with the host’s daughter. We were both six.
She led me to her room and knelt down next to a large box at the foot of her bed. “Wanna play with dolls?” She asked while fishing them out. She hadn’t yet changed out of her dress from her Saturday morning Indian dance class—a light blue salwar kameez. The fabric had a sheen from the sunlight entering her bedroom window. I was entranced. She got to wear that and dance? Where could I sign up?
The dance I wanted to learn? Bhangra. One person beats a large double-headed drum, the dhol, while folks in colorful clothing move on the balls of their feet, twist their wrists, and stretch out their arms. It’s an enchanting traditional dance; but somewhere in its migration from India to other countries, the dance snorted some cocaine and became frantic and hyper, choreographed to a conglomeration of Punjabi music and hip-hop. A way to get the general public more interested, I guess. Modern Bhangra was probably not what the farmers had in mind when they celebrated in villages long ago, but its origin made it my priority to master.
The Indian girl with the ponytail addressed our 40-odd group. I conjured her backstory, how her parents forced her to take cultural dance classes at an early age, how she wished to be more American, but would come home to a kitchen filled with strong aromas, a mother in a salwar kameez making roti over gas burners. She must have absorbed Hindi from her parents. She was most likely majoring in Political Science, because if she chose Dance, oh, the drama that would unfold! Her parents would stop paying her tuition. Probably disown her, too. While that would have made for a riveting soap opera, this girl knew how to walk that line, getting her adventures out now before she graduated and provided her parents with a litany of accomplishments to brag about. She assuaged her parents by informing them her current studies would lead to enrollment in a top-tier law school. In the meantime, she aced her classes and dated a white boy she’d NEVER tell her parents about.
The Indian girl explained to us that the team participated in competitions in the metro area and had taken home the first-place trophy for several years. The 20 available spots would go to the top candidates.
Competitions. Not my cup of chai. Too much pressure to be the best or disappoint your team and, by proxy, your family. Also, I wasn’t here to compete. I just wanted to dance Bhangra because my Punjabi father hadn’t cared to share anything related to his culture with me. He gave me an Indian name then returned to work as a surgeon and the primary breadwinner of the family. To him, assimilation was pragmatic. I was being raised in the United States, going to American schools. Why teach the girl to speak Punjabi when English was all she’d need? Echoes of my culture only wafted through the house when my father called India on the basement landline, yelling pleasantries on the phone with his sister and mother.
Most of the Indian décor and knickknacks were in our basement. I didn’t know the meaning behind the statues of Shiva or our portraits of Guru Gobind Singh, but I wanted to. On Saturday afternoons, I descended into the basement to find my father on the rose sofa sectional watching Mahabharata, an epic story like The Odyssey only more desi. Produced in the late 80s the film spanned 30 VHS tapes. Actors in shiny gold and silver costumes spoke on the large screen. While it was of poor production value, the film harnessed my father’s attention. It must have been comforting for him to get lost in a story in his native language, fully aware of the emotional cues and cultural guidelines. I tugged at my father’s white undershirt and repeatedly asked, “What is he saying?” I wanted to be just as enraptured in the characters. I looked at his hooded eyes, his large cheeks with pock marks, his straight beak of a nose, and I hoped he’d let me in. But his eyes never moved from the television screen as he told me to go play outside.
◆ ◆ ◆
In the auditions, I was assigned to “Group B.” The actual studio spaces in the building must have been in use for the legitimate dance majors, because in order for us to get to work, an East Asian girl in jeans, a cotton shirt, and a jean jacket corralled me and 20 girls down the hallway of the lobby to a less-trafficked end of the building, near a floor-to-ceiling window.
The East Asian girl, our team “leader,” lined us into three rows facing her, then walked us through the steps—just move our feet up and down like we were running in place. Okay, I got this, I thought. But then came the next combination, which required us to raise the right hand with the left leg and vice versa. My devotion to graduate school and internet memes did not prepare me for this amount of physical exertion. Within minutes, my heart was pumping faster than it had in months. My Oxford shirt stuck to the sweat on my back.
God, when was the last time I took a dance class? Was it back when I was a kid? After my father shooed me out of the basement, I petitioned my mother about Indian dance classes. Her face became blank. “I was not expecting this,” she muttered as she had likely mentally scanned all the childrearing books she’d read and come up nil on “cultural heritage education.” And there the issue of accessibility. Unlike my father’s friends in Potomac, we didn’t live in a dense South Asian community. Our small town of Upper Marlboro was the cultural mecca to a county courthouse and a Ledo Pizza.
My mother used her secret weapon: deflection. “How about ballet instead?” She asked. Waifs in pink tutus pirouetted through my mind. I nodded. Somewhere buried in the closet are photos of me in a pink leotard with black tights smiling shyly for the camera, my feet turned inwards in ballet slippers. I took classes in ballet, tap, and jazz. Unless Indians have a secret jazz dance I was unaware of, none was from my father’s country.
As we practiced, the white girls to my right busted moves as if they had performed Bhangra since they were in diapers. Oh God, I thought. I’m the slow kid!
At the risk of making sweeping generalizations, I’ve found that Indian families—both in India and the ones that emigrated elsewhere—make education a priority for their children. My father, my grandfather, and my great-grandfather were no exception. I lived to please my family, so I proudly galloped home with top marks on quizzes and tests. The worst feeling was to sit in the classroom, feeling prepared and confident for an assessment while other students complained the material was too difficult. When immersed in a group whose opinions contradicted my own, my self-assuredness melted away. Panic would take over; I hadn’t studied enough.
That feeling would return whenever I would get called out for not knowing enough about my Indian heritage. One arbiter was a guy from my neighborhood. Since we went to the same high school, he would sometimes drive me home. He and his hippie white family had lived in India for about a year when he was a boy. When he would reminisce about his childhood, he’d conjure those sentimental memories, wishing to return and munch on fresh mangoes. During one car ride, I admitted I didn’t like the pulpy fibrous fruit. He chuckled, looked over at me from the driver’s seat and said, “I’m more Indian than you!” The comment was so surprising, I couldn’t articulate a response. He said it with conviction I could only guess came from never being questioned, yet I worried he might be right. A few years later, I moved into my freshman dorm room and met my roommate, a white girl from Virginia who had a love for Bollywood films. She spouted off her favorite desi actors like they were her cousins. I nodded like I knew of them. The truth: I had no idea. I unpacked my suitcases and propped my all-American DVDs in my appointed nook.
Our audition leader observed us, her mouth a straight line. Time to try the routine to music. She pressed play on the black stereo. A drumbeat started as she returned to her position at the front, her back to us. Then came our cue. I took a deep breath and let go, allowing my arms to stretch over my head, my legs to kick out at 90-degree angles. Muscles were in motion that I was sure had atrophied from inactivity. Finally, tension dissipated. I let the routine move through me. Without my inhibition, my body freely floated through the air, adrift in waves emitting from the speakers. I could see how Bhangra dancers made this effortless, how they were one with their movements, with the space around them.
There’s often a difference between how you think you look and how you actually look. I was no Fred Astaire, or whatever the Indian equivalent would be. Shah Rukh Khan, perhaps? I made mistakes left and right. Or was it right and left? Bring up the arms and twist the wrists. Were my arms high enough? My moment of serenity bowed out and anxiety tagged itself into the ring. My shoulders tensed. My knees locked.
At the end of the song, the leader put her hands on her hips like Wonder Woman. Ten-minute break. A few girls trotted off together towards the bathroom.
During the break, I could make out my reflection clearly enough in the pitch-black window to rehearse the steps. My movements flowed, then stiffened. I kept second-guessing myself. With my hair tied back, I resembled my six-year-old self, a young girl trying to understand why people called me “the mixed kid” and why I never fit in. At home, my parents told me I was white, but outside, people kept asking me, “What are you?” White was never a satisfactory response. “You must be something,” they’d press me.
As I practiced, part of me imagined how the Indian girl might take notice of my drive. My team leader would approach the Indian girl, guide her sightline to me, and murmur I wouldn’t make the cut. But the Indian girl would put up her hand, motioning silence. “She’s got spirit,” she would say.
Before the tryout had begun, I’d contemplated pulling the Indian girl aside to tell her that I was in fact a fellow desi and see if that could be grounds for automatic entry. “Come on, I’m not like these white girls,” I would say to her. Couldn’t they just let me in? Bring displaced mixed girls back into the bosom of their heritage?
Then the actual Indian girl’s voice boomed in the hall. The warm-up was officially over. The real auditions were about to begin. I sat on the floor with Group B as Group A lined up in front of a table where the Indian girl, our team leader, and the other judges sat.
With a click of the play button, the dhol beat started. Group A was off, a flurry of arms and legs. Unlike our group, the one performing included a handful of men with their own choreography. Together, it made for a complimentary coordination of graceful movements. How did they get these boisterous young puppies into formation, lined up like obedient soldiers, executing the moves like they were born to do it? Born to do it. Wasn’t I born to do it? Right there before me, a team of white people completed choreographed moves after a mere thirty minutes of practice. A group with the same color of skin of people who had ostracized me my whole life outperformed me in an activity that was part of my heritage. At the time, I didn’t have a strong grasp of how certain enterprises formed in the name of cultural exchange could still be exclusionary. These limber students didn’t have bad intentions. They weren’t aware they were a part of cultural theft, all in the name of winning. The Bhangra team, led by an Indian gatekeeper, had made a cultural dance a competition, where only the best (a.k.a., white) people participated. That all-too-familiar feeling returned: I wasn’t Indian enough.
“Okay! Group B!” We took our places. The beat started.
I followed the routine to the best of my ability. Looking back, I wished someone had videotaped the audition. I felt I was following the moves as well as my partners were, but perhaps that sense of confidence was all in my head. Maybe, upon reviewing a replay, I would observe an older girl whose movements weren’t precise or well-timed. An older girl who, instead, had performed an impressive impersonation of an orangutan. At any rate, we reached the end of the routine. My hands rested on my hips as I bent over for air.
The judges conferred again. Then the Indian girl said to expect a decision in a week.
During the quiet mornings in my studio apartment, barefoot in the middle of the hardwood floor, I danced for no one. Recalling the audition, I reenacted the practiced steps as sunlight peeked through the vertical blinds. During the week-long waiting period, I adopted Schrödinger’s cat theory—basically, I was both on the team and not on the team. And if I potentially was on the team, it was high time to figure out how to bust a move without having to gasp for air. I hoped muscle-memory would solidify the steps. But then I’d hesitate, and my routine would end up a stilted, private performance.
I imagined calling my father and telling him I joined a Bhangra team. I tried to predict his reaction. Astonishment? Amazement? Indifference? I played out each possibility in my head and wondered if he’d recall those days his pesky daughter kept vying for his attention while he watched his movies.
Then the email arrived.
Due to the limited amount of space on our team for new members and the high volume of people interested in joining, we cannot offer you a position for this fall’s AU Bhangra team.
I read the message a few times before the courteous rejection sunk in. Before I could crawl into the fetal position and soothe myself with coffee ice cream, I straightened up and formulated a response: I’m not interested in competing, but do you think it would be possible if I could attend practice? You see, I’m Punjabi. I really want to learn the dance for myself and to learn more about my culture.
My cursor wavered over the send button.
Why did I really want this? They were competitive entertainers. Not a cultural barometer for lessening my insecurity. The truth: it had never been about external validation. It was the pattern I couldn’t break—descending those carpeted steps to the basement, the Hindi blaring from the television, my father reclining in peace. With acceptance into this dance troupe, I had gotten it into my mind that it would be enough to make my father turn, and finally see me.
With a click, I deleted the message. I picked up Robinson Crusoe where I had left it, with the pages faced down on the desk, a bird with outstretched wings.