South Asian Dance Competitions Booming at US Universities

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by Janny Jang
A team performs at a Bhangra competition at Cornell University, demonstrating the high energy style of dance originating in the region of Punjab in Northern India and Pakistan. Image: Anthony “itsachen” via Flickr.

One of the largest South Asian cultural events in the US, the Bhangra Blowout dance competition, has entered its 23rd year, drawing teams from across the country. Hosted by the South Asian Society at George Washington University in Washington, DC, Bhangra Blowout is the longest running collegiate Bhangra competition and one of the largest student-run South Asian events of its kind in the US. The event drew participants and teams from different parts of the country, reflecting the growth of collegiate Bhangra circuit beyond its origins in DC, expanding to the Midwest and the West Coast. There are now over 100 university teams and 30 competitions in the US. Top competitions beyond GW’s Bhangra Blowout include Bhangra in the Burgh at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, South Beach Bhangra in Miami, Dhol Di Awaz at UC Berkeley in Northern California, and Bruin Bhangra hosted by Unversity of California, Los Angeles, which is one of the largest West Coast competitions.  

Bhangra is a style of music and dance originating from Northern India and Pakistan that has been around for centuries and now has a growing popularity worldwide. In the US, it brings together Indian-Americans, Pakistani-Americans, and people with no ethnic connection to the region but who nonetheless are drawn to the unique dance form and the close-knit community of teams and competitors. An annual exhibition at Cornell University, Pao Bhangra, attracts 2,500 people from the local Ithaca, New York community, where most attendees are not of South Asian heritage but who join in because they enjoy the dance and culture. A major online community, Bhangra Teams’ Forum, reflects the increasing interests in the dance among people of a wide range of ethnicities. Bhangra has even made its way to the White House, as the Bhangra Empire team, based in Northern California, performed at a state dinner with President Obama and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2009.

The growth of Bhangra Blowout, first organized by GW’s South Asian Society in 1993, parallels the large increase in the Indian population in the DC, Maryland, and Virginia (DMV) area. Maryland has the 10th largest Indian American population in the US, and is home to the ISKCON Hare Krishna Temple in Potomac and the Sri Siva Vishnu Temple in Lanham, one of the largest Hindu temples in the country. Virginia is also among the top ten states in terms of Indian population, and has the fastest growing Indian population nationwide, growing 109% from 2000-2010, while DC’s grew 83%. This large population growth in the DMV region has also led to a significant increase in cultural ties.

Janny Jang is a Research Intern at the East-West Center in Washington and a student at American University.