The Bruin Bhangra team glowed with sweat and smiles after an intense three-hour practice of squatting, jumping and leaping.
“Bruins on three!” said co-captain Guransh Singh after concluding a seven-and-a-half minute run-through of the fast-paced dance. The set is their closing number for their upcoming Punjabi competition, Reign of Bhangra, in Tacoma, Washington on Saturday.
The Bruin Bhangra Team, first established in 1998, consists of 25 UCLA students who are passionate about the Punjabi dance and practice and competes throughout the academic year, Singh said. Bruin Bhangra strikes a balance between being a celebration of each of the members’ shared South Asian culture and an opportunity for them to participate in competitive dance, he said.
Singh said his father always wanted him to do Bhangra dancing, but others always told him it would distract from his studies.
But after getting into UCLA, the now third-year international development studies student ended up tagging along with a friend to the Bruin Bhangra team’s tryouts in 2014. He has since become one of the captains.
The hardest part of Bruin Bhangra involves developing choreography for the team over the summer and during breaks with his fellow co-captains, Singh said. He went home to Washington, D.C. while the two other captains remained in California, which posed a challenge. The time difference made coordinating practice difficult, and he would often stay up until 5 a.m. to work with his co-captains on the choreography.
“Being captain is one of the toughest things I’ve ever done in my life,” he said. “I have had to use every skill I have ever learned in my life, whether it be time management – managing my own time or making time to do team stuff – and leadership, creativity and research.”
As a co-captain, he said there is a lot on his plate, from organizing the Bruin Bhangra competition to making the formations of the dancers, to choreographing each number. But one of his favorite parts of being captain is curating the Bruin Bhangra song list, because it helps determine the vibe of the whole performance, he said.
“Making the mix has honestly probably taken me more time than I have spent choreographing,” Singh said. “When I’m on my laptop and I’m bored of studying, I’ll pull up the mix software and start mixing whatever I can.”
His resulting set list includes Punjabi songs “Chaar Din,” “Kali Jawande Di” and “Sachiyan Suniyan,” as well as the the Young Jeezy song “Put On.”
Singh couldn’t imagine his life without Bhangra not just because of the passion he has for the dance, but also because of the family aspect of the team.
“It’s something I would never give up,” he said.
Harsimranjit Kang began expressing his interest in Bhangra only a year ago, after he danced in the Culture Show put on through the Indian Student Union. The annual event is filled with musical and dance performances.
“I wanted to connect more with my culture, because Bhangra is such a big part of my culture as a Punjabi,” said the second-year global studies student.
Kang’s experience with Bhangra as part of a team is completely new for him, and it has been pushing him to work hard to be successful, he said. The practices are rigorous, ranging from three to 10 hours in hard, cement parking structures before a competition, he said.
“We have a show next week, so practices are like, ‘Do a full seven-and-a half minute run-through straight, then clean some moves up, and then do another full run-through,’” he said.
Though the practices can be challenging, he said he loves the energy and connection he has with the dance, along with his teammates.
“We’re always smiling, we’re laughing, we’re having a good time,” Kang said. “But we’re also getting tired and doing intense moves.”
Aashna Oberoi, a fourth-year psychology student, has been dancing Bhangra since she was in kindergarten. She feels she has always been inspired by Bhangra and would watch videos of other dancers at Bhangra competitions on YouTube.
By joining the team, she said she was able to get more in touch with her roots as a Punjabi girl raised in Orange County, where her culture sometimes got lost growing up.
“I grew up in an area that was predominantly white,” she said. “So coming to UCLA, I wanted to experience something different.”
Her parents never forced her culture on her, Oberoi said, other than the Punjabi School she attended in tandem with elementary and middle school. Once she started high school, she began to drift from her culture even more without her Punjabi School.
Since she was surrounded by many Caucasian people, her culture didn’t affect her as much, she said.
“When I got to college, my circle became more Punjabi,” Oberoi said.
By being at UCLA and joining the Bruin Bhangra team, she has had the opportunity to be around people who are of similar backgrounds and value their culture.
Oberoi stays connected with her Punjabi culture not just through the dance, but through interacting with her teammates themselves outside of practice at different bonding activities, like eating in Westwood, studying together and attending their extracurricular Girls’ Night and Guys’ Night, she said.
“Indirectly, a lot of them are more Punjabi than I am, so they speak the language, and know the terms and get the jokes, and I’ve been able to pick that up over time,” Oberoi said. “My parents are really surprised, and I think they really like that.”
Harnadar Singh was inspired by his mother, who did Bhangra dancing in college. He grew up surrounded by Bhangra at every cultural wedding, anniversary and birthday and was fascinated by the colorful clothing and intricate dance routines, he said.
“I’ve been doing this my whole life,” the second-year neuroscience student said.
He didn’t want to lose that sense of familiarity with his culture during his time away at UCLA, he said.
“It’s an expression of happiness, and it’s something that I’ve always done,” he said, “It’s something I wanted to continue doing in college because it felt like a piece of home while you’re away.”
Though he enjoys competing, he said that is not his prime reason for being part of the team.
“Competition, I would say, is not as important as the lessons that we learn while dancing, like about working as a team,” Singh said.
When she was growing up, Sukhi Kaur said Bhangra exploded in the United States, which is when she decided it was something she wanted to do competitively rather than just recreationally.
The fourth-year English student’s first introduction to Bhangra, though, was much earlier – she said she recalls how her parents put her in classes at her local temple when she was five or six years old, and she always enjoyed the lessons.
She has been on the Bruin Bhangra team since she first arrived at UCLA in 2013.
“Bruin Bhangra is one of the biggest teams in the country and I was like ‘Okay, I want to join,’” Kaur said.
Kaur is now the group’s president, in charge of orchestrating the 19th annual Bruin Bhangra Competition in May, an international competition for college Bhangra teams consisting of a preparty, a performance and an after-party. Teams come from all over the world, including Canada and Australia, Singh said.
She was excited about being in charge of the competition and creating a reputation in the Bhangra circuit. Her job is to oversee the planning and execution of the event.
For her, much of her attachment to the art form and devotion to the club comes from her love for both her parents and culture, she said.
“It’s important to keep this alive for our parents, who came from India,” Kaur said. “We lose a bit of our culture with every generation, so it’s something that keeps us all together.”