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BOLLYWOOD WORKOUT

Indian films’ choreography ignites new fitness craze

for The Brooklyn Paper
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Brooklynites got a taste of the spicy spectacle that is Bollywood dance, with a performance by dance teacher Pooja Narang’s troupe at the Brooklyn Museum on March 12.

But Bollywood - the Hollywood-like film industry in India - isn’t just for sedentary entertainment anymore, it’s also the source of a burgeoning workout craze.

If you’re looking to shed some of that winter weight but can’t bear the thought of a boring gym routine, consider livening up your fitness regimen with Bollywood dance classes.

Narang can usually be found at Bollywood Axion, her dance studio overlooking Times Square. Perhaps it’s her own serenity amid the deafening Hindi pop music blasting from the portable boom box in the corner that keeps her students attentive. As a whole, they mimic her movements - hips jutting sideways, arms overhead, fingers crooked and held just so. Every beat of the song matches the beat of their bodies.

Sometimes Bollywood dancing confuses the eye, sometimes it overloads the senses and sometimes it relentlessly thumps at a place so deep inside of you that the urge to dance is like an unscratchable itch. It is jarring and graceful all at once. But its inimitable magnetism is undeniable - to think that bodies can move this way, that music can sound so cheesy and so catchy at the same time, and that you, whoever you are, can learn how to do it.

Bhavana Nancherla, 24, of Ditmas Park, has been taking lessons since last fall and says she looks forward to each week’s class. She says the best part about the class is that "it gets you moving, and dancing is a really fun way to get some exercise without even realizing that you’re getting it." Nancherla was one of the troupe members who performed to a medley of Bollywood songs at the museum on Saturday.

Nancherla also says it improves coordination and rhythm, and that "concentrating on something other than how many minutes I have left on a treadmill keeps me interested for longer." She says benefits also include aerobic exercise, toning, stretching and exercising different sets of muscles all at once, and that "if you enjoy Bollywood music, it’s a great way to keep up-to-date with India’s movie industry at the same time."

The film industry is incredibly popular in India, producing twice as many films per year as its Western counterpart. Also called "masala movies" after the Indian masala spice mixture, Bollywood films include a little bit of everything: love, comedy, daredevil thrills and melodrama, mixed into a three-hour extravaganza with glamorous costumes and elaborate song-and-dance sequences. The typical masala movie is an epic, kaleidoscopic feast for the eyes, made even more dramatic by the fact that traditional Indian culture shies away from on-screen displays of sexuality - the first onscreen kiss in a Bollywood film occurred only 10 years ago. Romantic plot lines are instead expressed metaphorically through song and dance.

And yet, while Bollywood performances may seem spastic and capricious, this dance form - a combination of India’s classical and folk dance traditions infused with Latin and Arabic influences - is a complicated art. There is much more to Bollywood dancing than just the steps. Narang explains that "certain hand gestures are meant to connote emotion - touching the eyes means, ’I’m thinking of you’ or touching the mouth expresses unspoken thoughts."

Trained in Indian classical dancing, hip-hop, jazz and ballet, Narang moved to New York City with her husband in early 2003. She worked as a Web designer by day and gave private Bollywood dance lessons at night. By the time she was 25, she had quit her 9-to-5 job and opened a Bollywood dance studio in Midtown that same year. Space in her classes is limited, and participants must sign up well in advance of each three-month session.

If you don’t want to make the trek to Midtown, Narang will give individual lessons in the privacy of your own home.

Narang says that her students vary widely in body type and age, but "there are definitely more females." Classes are all taught at the same beginner’s level, and students need not have prior Bollywood dance experience because "the way I teach is easy."

But Narang herself, a 1996 Miss India Canada pageant finalist, does look the part of a Bollywood star even as she weaves unobtrusively among her students, pointing out the need for a fuller hip gyration here, demonstrating the correct alignment of the fingertips there.

Sarah Starbuck, 28, of Park Slope, had no prior Bollywood dance experience when she began taking lessons from Narang in January 2004. Now she’s a performer in Narang’s troupe. She says that everyone usually loses some weight from taking the class.

"Between classes, rehearsals and practicing at home, you shed a few pounds," she says. "The greatest benefit is the way it makes you feel. It’s fun, dramatic and sexy, and for the brief time you’re dancing, you’re an entertainer telling a story and being the center of attention.

"It’s a great way to relieve stress and boost your self-confidence."

And while it may not be the toughest workout you’ll ever do, its most important benefits are general fitness and fun.

"Bollywood dance isn’t going to give you rock-hard abs or help you complete a marathon," says Starbuck. "It’s a fun way to get more physical activity into your life and feel good, but the focus is on the joy of dancing and the challenge of learning something new.

"The health benefits are just a side effect."

 

Bollywood Axion is located at 257 W. 39th St., 14th floor, between Seventh and Eighth avenues in Manhattan. Bhangra (a traditional Punjabi folk dance) and Bollywood dance classes cost $140 for 10 hours and $240 for 20 hours. Private, in-home lessons cost $45 per hour. To register, e-mail contact information to bollywoodaxion@yahoo.com. Acting coaching, pageant competition preparation and choreography for films and wedding dances are also offered. For more information about classes, call (718) 791-3781 or visit the Web site, www.bollywoodaxion.moonfruit.com.

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