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Punjabi culture takes center stage at annual Bruin Bhangra dance competition

Bruin Bhangra dancers leap synchronously during a performance. Sharing a name with its student organization, “Bruin Bhangra XXIV” will take place this weekend in downtown Los Angeles. (Courtesy of Simirthi Kaur Photography)

“Bruin Bhangra XXIV”

Orpheum Theatre

May 26

6 p.m.

By Katy Nicholas

May 25, 2024 1:19 p.m.

With a weekend full of events and themes born out of Hollywood culture, Bruin Bhangra is much more than a dance competition.

Held annually, Bruin Bhangra is one of the largest Indian dance competitions in the United States, said Mehma Jolly, a third-year human biology and society student and the team’s co-president. Requiring over $100,000 to operate and attracting professional dance teams nationally, the decades-long tradition is projected to attract over 2,000 in-person audience members this year as well as thousands online – all coming together to celebrate the Punjabi folk dance, she said. The Bruin Bhangra competition shares its name with the UCLA dance group that organizes the event, which also participates in competitions and performs in events throughout the academic year.

“It’s (Bruin Bhangra is) so deeply rooted into the Indian dance circuit in the U.S. now that I would hate to see it go away,” Jolly said. “It’s just really important to have in our culture to also bring people together, but also to pass down our dance itself and the form of dance and the art forms to younger generations.”

Jolly said the competition is a three-day event, including a pre-party on Friday, a team mixer on Saturday, the actual show on Sunday and an afterparty to complete the weekend. The whole event is hosted over Memorial Day weekend in downtown Los Angeles, traditionally in several venues – including the Orpheum Theatre, she said. Furthermore, she said exhibition teams perform in between competitors.

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Although the competition is centered around dance, second-year cognitive science student Rhea Chhabra said the event is truly about celebrating Punjabi culture. Bruin Bhangra co-president Japji Singh, a former Daily Bruin contributor, said there will be vendors and sponsors selling food and merchandise as well as cultural organizations at the event. For example, the third-year economics student said a Punjabi plasma organization connected with a life-saving donor last year through one of Bruin Bhangra’s events. This year, a practice group of medical professionals will attend the event, Singh added.

“A lot of what we do and why we’re a student-run organization – we do all student-run funding – is because we believe in showcasing Punjabi heritage and culture,” Singh said. “Because we’re all mostly second-gen or first-gen kids of immigrants, it’s a really nice way for us to connect back to our roots and give back to our communities.”

Dancers performing Bhangra, a style of Punjabi folk dance, link arms on stage. In honor of the 24th edition of the event, Bruin Bhangra drew inspiration from Kobe Bryant, whose LA Lakers jersey number was 24, said third-year human biology and society student Mehma Jolly. (Courtesy of Simirthi Kaur Photography)
Dancers performing Bhangra, a style of Punjabi folk dance, link arms on stage. In honor of the 24th edition of the event, Bruin Bhangra drew inspiration from Kobe Bryant, whose LA Lakers jersey number was 24, said third-year human biology and society student Mehma Jolly. (Courtesy of Simirthi Kaur Photography)

In the past couple of years, Bruin Bhangra has adopted a yearly theme, Jolly said. Bruin Bhangra’s identity is impacted by the LA community in which it lives, Singh said, so using themes allows teams from around the globe to experience this aspect of the group’s identity. Since this is the event’s 24th year, the group chose to base this year’s competition on LA Lakers athlete Kobe Bryant, whose jersey number was 24, Jolly said.

While there are a lot of Bhangra competitions throughout the year and across the world, Jolly said Bruin Bhangra is known as the “Super Bowl” of Bhangra competitions because of its reputation. She said she’s heard stories of teams that do not think of themselves as true winners of the dance circuit until they have won the competition. Chhabra said the event attracts a certain type of team.

“We call it a Bruin set – a team that puts on a really big, creative, full-of-gimmicks sort of set,” Chhabra said. “That’s what we’re known for – something that’s always very big and that shocks the crowd.”

[Related: ROOT[D’s annual Mock Mehndi event aims to showcase traditions, show cultural pride]

The Bruin Bhangra dance group works on preparing to host the competition all year, Chhabra said, but it develops its own choreography for other events throughout that time. Chhabra said the group took a four-year hiatus from performing following the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and recently returned to competitions for the first time this March. The group has also performed at campus events, bashes and cultural celebrations around LA, which helps it raise money for its annual competition, Singh said.

Bruin Bhangra has been around since 1998. During this time, the group has taken the once male-centered dance and transformed it into a group display of cardio, Chhabra said. She said the dance is high energy and requires a stage presence that takes up a large space. She added that dances are graded on a rubric unique to each competition, whose criteria include the creative use of fundamental moves and interaction with one’s partner.

Singh said it requires stamina to run Bruin Bhangra. With LA prices on the rise, renting out venues for three days requires substantial fundraising, but Singh said the community and passion they have built within the Bruin Bhangra committee allows them to deliver year after year.

“Because it is a student-run organization, it’s all explicitly funded by whatever efforts we do, so we do gigs during the year at different events to help fundraise. We reach out to sponsors,” Singh said. “It’s really a testament to the strength and the support of the committee.”

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