Bhangra in the Burgh fuses modern styles with traditional dance

Columbia Bhangra opened the competition with a modernized take on traditional styles. (credit: Jason  Chen/) Columbia Bhangra opened the competition with a modernized take on traditional styles. (credit: Jason Chen/) A hip-hop performance by Soulstylz broke with tradition. (credit: Jason  Chen/) A hip-hop performance by Soulstylz broke with tradition. (credit: Jason Chen/) VCU Bhangra put on a balanced performance. (credit: Jason  Chen/) VCU Bhangra put on a balanced performance. (credit: Jason Chen/) Carnegie Mellon's team danced to cheers from the audience while the audience tallied the votes. (credit: Kelsey Scott/Operations Manager) Carnegie Mellon's team danced to cheers from the audience while the audience tallied the votes. (credit: Kelsey Scott/Operations Manager)

The seventh annual Bhangra in the Burgh (BIB) competition was held at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall last Saturday night. Although only seven years old, BIB has consistently brought together some of the best Bhangra teams in the North America and has sold out multiple shows.

“It was obviously a really fun show,” said Pranita Ramakrishnan, sophomore information systems major and BIB co-chair. Aside from the flashy dancing, however, the co-chairs were all most excited about getting the community involved in and excited about Bhangra, a dance style for which they all share passion.

This year’s competition differed from previous ones in that it was promoted accessibly all over campus. “Before the show we tried to make the PR really fun,” Ramakrishnan said. Anyone who walked past Doherty Hall the weeks preceding the show can attest to the energetic music that blasted while committee members sold tickets for both the event and the after-party.

This year, the committee also welcomed Indian emcee Jus Reign, a famous Punjabi comedian and YouTube sensation. As host for the show, Jus Reign kept the fun alive between sets as he held “impromptu” Skype video calls with his brother and joked about the lack of white people in the audience.

On Saturday, Pittsburgh welcomed eight competitive teams: the University of California, Berkeley’s Bhangra team (Cal Bhangra), Columbia University’s Bhangra team (Columbia Bhangra), Cornell University’s Bhangra team (Cornell Bhangra), First Class Bhangra (FCB), George Mason University’s Bhangra team (GMU Bhangra), Shaan Mutiyaaran Di Bhangra Club, the University of Virgina’s Di Shaan, and Virginia Commonwealth University’s Bhangra team (VCU Bhangra). Also featured were five local exhibition acts: Carnegie Mellon University’s Chak de Bhangra, the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Masti, the University of Pittsburgh’s PantheRaas, Carnegie Mellon’s Deewane, and Carnegie Mellon’s Soulstylz.

Maintaining its roots in Punjabi folk dancing, modern Bhangra has been transformed into a lively dance style that hints at hip-hop and other modern influences. The teams performing last Saturday all put on technically stunning performances, the main discrepancies between the acts being the level of modern influence.

Columbia Bhangra started the night off strong. The group put on one of the more modernized performances and was able to energize the crowd, setting a good vibe for the rest of the night.

Crowd favorite FCB, an all-male Pittsburgh-area Bhangra group, brought a similarly modernized performance, easily the most dynamic and energetic performance of the night. The energy was evident before the dance even started; the dancers pumped up the audience by jumping excitedly up and down as they took the stage in dim lighting. The crowd cheered continuously throughout the performance.

The last competitive team to take the stage, UVA Di Shaan, ended the competition with another high-energy dance with obvious modern influence. Their performance started off with the most exciting light show of the night with rainbow colors flashing along with the beat. The fun didn’t end there, however: The performance was once again on the less traditional side, infusing techno music and hard-hitting hip-hop moves, and the choreography was both technically challenging and engaging for the audience.

Emphasizing one of the modern styles that has had a great impact on Bhangra, Carnegie Mellon’s elite hip-hop team Soulstylz also made an appearance. Although not so flashy and colorful as the Bhangra dances, Soulstylz provided a refreshing and creative set that left the audience wanting to dance along.

Cornell Bhangra, who placed second at last year’s Bhangra in the Burgh, came out with choreography that had moments of obvious modern influence balanced with a traditional overall feel. Cornell boasts one of the oldest Bhangra teams that competed, and the members’ experience was very obvious. The performance brought the night’s energy to a whole new level and the crowd roared before the dancers even took the stage. Their timing was impeccable; they truly danced as one cohesive group.

VCU Bhangra, a newcomer to the BIB stage, performed a similarly balanced dance. The team’s set, with its relevance and synchronization, produced a comparably great crowd reaction.

Another exhibition act, Penn Masti broke up the final run of Bhangra performances with its South Asian jazz fusion-styled performance. Their choreography was technical and captivating, at times very sexy and other times emulating a traditional folk dance.

Also demonstrating the influence modern culture has had on tradition, Deewane — Carnegie Mellon’s all-male South Asian fusion a cappella group — performed a short set. The team offered a captivating mash-up of a traditional song and an instantly recognizable ’90s hit —the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way.”

Performing directly after Columbia, GMU Bhangra’s performance was starkly more traditional. They were the first performance group of the night to bring a dholi, a performer who plays a traditional Punjabi drum, into the mix.

SMD Bhangra Club, the only all-female performance of the night, also came out strong and performed its traditional piece with the most excited and passionate faces seen at the competition. The dance’s musicality was nearly unmatched in the competition.

Last year’s BIB champion, Cal Bhangra, kicked off the second half of the show with an analogous musically conscious and highly entertaining performance. Although it didn’t receive the same roaring applause as last year, crowd members happily watched the heartwarming performance with bellies full of samosas.

A performance by Pitt’s PantheRaas continued the theme of traditional Indian dance, but broke up the Bhangra flow with a Garba-Raas styled dance. Garba and Raas are both traditional Indian dances from the Guijarat and Vrindavan regions of India respectively. Their performance included similarly ostentatious costumes and the dancing had some similarities to Bhangra, but it brought a distinct Indian flair to the night.

While the scores were still being tallied backstage, Carnegie Mellon’s Chak de Bhangra took the stage as many of the performers’ peers cheered them on from the audience. At the end of the performance, the entire Chak de Bhangra family stormed the stage, marking the peak of the night’s energy level.

After the Carnegie Mellon performance, much of the crowd began to file out while the judges were still deliberating. When the awards were finally presented, crowd favorite FCB took first place followed by Cornell Bhangra, the runner-up from last year’s competition. GMU Bhangra secured third place.

Clearly there was no favored balance of tradition and modern influence when it came to the judging perspective, with a modern, mixed, and traditional team claiming each of the top spots respectively. The night featured a great blend of traditional culture and modern fun, creating a strikingly colorful, energetic, and musical experience.