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How dance team ROOT[D branches out while staying true to South Asian roots

ROOT[D dancers gather together dressed in traditional clothing, forming a gradient from blue to red. The South Asian fusion dance team hosts an annual Mock Mehndi on campus, which is open to all students. (Courtesy of Ilan Berdy)

By Maya Vibhakar

Sept. 3, 2023 1:12 p.m.

The fusion dance team ROOT[D is embracing its South Asian roots.

Formed in 2019, ROOT[D is one of UCLA’s only South Asian dance groups that focuses on fusion dance styles. Aashna Bhandari, a rising third-year human biology and society student and one of the group’s directors, said the group aims to cultivate a pressure-free environment where students have the opportunity to grow as a performer. As a dance group comprised of students with and without dance experience, ROOT[D is dedicated to making members feel encouraged and supported, she said.

“The vision for this team was really creating an inclusive space for … South Asian dancers in general, where the main focus is not competition,” Bhandari said. “It’s mostly individual growth and growth as a team. … Our whole motto is, ‘Be comfortable being uncomfortable.’”

Bhandari said ROOT[D fuses styles from all regions of South Asia, including the South Indian Kuthu style and North Indian Bhangra style, as well as Bollywood and hip-hop. Maneesh Rajulapati, a rising third-year psychobiology student and another one of the group’s directors, said ROOT[D also tries to incorporate Western music into its performances in order to add a distinctive flair to a routine.

“In a lot of the pieces that we have, there’ll be some sort of rapper, someone like Drake, but then it’ll be fused into an Indian song,” Rajulapati said. “The crowd will get really hyped up because they’re like, ‘Oh, I know this song, and I also know this song, but I’ve never heard these together.’”

[Related: Dedicated to South Asian girls, thesis film ‘Ladke’ pays homage to rom-com genre]

In addition to performing as a dance group, ROOT[D hosts an annual Mock Mehndi. The event, which typically takes place at the end of spring quarter on the Hill, is a fake South Asian wedding between two ROOT[D members, said rising third-year human biology and society student and additional director Sanam Patel.

The event begins with the baraat, or a procession to the wedding venue, where the couple will sit upon a decorated car while the rest of the group follows and dances to a chorus of South Asian music, Patel said. Once they’re inside the ballroom, ROOT[D performers will perform alongside other dance teams and Indian classical music groups, she said, as guests help themselves to food and an open dance floor. Patel said it’s like a typical South Asian wedding, except only a celebration between college friends.

Just like their fusion dance, the group’s spirit of inclusivity extends to Mock Mehndi, said Praneetha Kakarla, a rising fourth-year biology student and another ROOT[D director. Mock Mehndi aims to incorporate different wedding practices from all areas of South Asia, she said, making sure there is a diverse range of cultures represented. Additionally, while Mock Mehndi is a South Asian-style wedding, Kakarla said all students are encouraged to join in on the celebration and learn more about South Asian culture.

“We wanted a chance to bring the entire UCLA South Asian community together that wasn’t like a specifically religious or specifically regional-based event,” Karkarla said. “We want to be able to show our friends, ‘This is what an Indian wedding looks like. This is what we do, and these are some of the traditions.’”

[Related: Ballet Company at UCLA spotlights dancing for ‘the sheer joy of ballet’]

In addition to Mock Mehndi, some of the events at which the group has performed throughout the year include the Indian Student Union’s Garba Night, the Foundations Choreography Choreo Showcase and Mehfil at USC’s competition, Karkarla said. Moving forward, Patel said members of ROOT[D plan to start taking studio dance classes together in order to challenge themselves and enhance their fusion dance skills.

When it comes to fusion dance, Patel said all members start in a similar place, with each dancer regularly learning unfamiliar choreography. Because of this, she said ROOT[D looks for students who will enthusiastically cheer on their peers as they each experiment with different styles and cultures.

“The best thing about doing a fusion of styles is that there’s going to be something that’s new for every single person,” Patel said. “That’s just the best part about it, because we really focus on staying rooted … in the South Asian culture, but also expanding our styles and learn about different cultures along the way.”

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Maya Vibhakar
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