My Body, My Instrument

By Kanchan Raju

POV: You set foot into the family function that you’re reluctantly but obligatorily attending. The bustling chatter of aunties and uncles and the tangy aroma of paneer sabzi fill the room. One vaguely familiar aunty approaches, and you brace yourself for several minutes of cheek squeezing and mildly invasive questioning. But rather than a mere “hello” or “how are you,” you’re greeted with the one recurring question you dread most: 

“Kanchan, is your Amma not feeding you?”

For as long as I can remember my long legs and thin stature have been kind of a staple — an essential part of who I am. I grew up with a plethora of affectionate nicknames, from classics like “Stick” and “Twig” to my personal favorite, “Daddy Long Legs.” I’ve never done anything in particular to warrant my skinniness; my DNA just happened to contain genetic instructions along the lines of “Make! Her! Longer!” But whether it was an aunty investigating my eating habits or my own best friends giving me far too elaborate nicknames, I always responded to the skinny comments the same way: by laughing and brushing them off. 

While it was fairly easy not to think about my figure in my day-to-day life, it became much harder to ignore in my dance endeavors. As a dancer of thirteen years, I’ve always thought of my body as my instrument. But when your instrument is disproportionate compared to the standard, it’s of course more difficult to produce the correct melodies. I felt constantly hindered by my body type, no matter what the dance style. In Bharatanatyam lessons, I struggled to make my aramandi (a fundamental squatting posture) extra deep in order to match the level of my classmates. In Bollywood class, my peers would nail the confidence and femininity of our Madhuri Dixit-inspired movements while I lacked the hips and curves to do the same. No matter how hard I worked on my memory, clarity, or stamina, nothing could change the fact that I just didn’t look like the other girls. 

Throughout middle school, my skinniness became even more of a sore point. I started to struggle severely with body image and for those few years I genuinely hated being in my own skin. I dreaded going to dance class, not because I lost my passion but because I just couldn’t stand how I looked doing any and every movement. How is it possible to play the right melody when you hate your instrument? 

But in the utmost paradox, the thing that fueled my negative self image the most was exactly what sparked my journey to recovery: dance. I slowly realized that dance doesn’t have to be a reason to scrutinize my appearance or a means of dictating my self worth. I could simply dance for myself. I had always heard expressions like “Dance is the hidden language of the soul” and “Dance like nobody’s watching” and deemed them cliché, but as I entered high school I felt myself truly embodying these statements for the first time. When I learned a new sequence of Bharatanatyam abhinaya (storytelling using intricate hand gestures and facial expressions), I shifted my focus from nitpicking my own body to immersing myself into my character. I never felt more comfortable in my own skin than when I captured the elegance of a gopi (milkmaid) or the might of Lord Shiva. 

On a mission to build my body positivity, I dove into a whole new realm of the artform: choreography. As I began to create my own pieces I found this invaluable feeling that I have full and total control over my body, that nothing can come between me and the music. To this day when I lock myself in my garage for hours on end, I’m transported to a safe space wherein no one’s perception of my appearance matters — free of judgment from others and myself. Throughout high school I also mustered the courage to dabble in more outgoing styles that I was once too self-conscious to try — hip hop, jazz funk, modern, and more. And sure enough, the less I tore apart my appearance while dancing, the better my execution. I wish I could see the pure disbelief on middle school-Kanchan’s face if I told her hip hop would be her favorite style just a few years down the line. 

I’d be lying if I said my body insecurities have completely vanished, and in all honesty they probably never will. I still have days where I look in the mirror and am habitually inclined to pick apart everything I see. But for each instance of self criticism, I try to remind myself how the same body in that reflection has deepened my appreciation for dance in ways I never thought possible. And for that, I’m eternally grateful. 

I’m slowly but steadily learning to value my instrument for what it is — quirks and all. For even though no two instruments are built the same, each is capable of creating its own uniquely beautiful melody. 

Bio: 

My name is Kanchan Raju and I’m a first year Cognitive Science major at UCLA. I have been passionate about dance and piano for as long as I can remember, and I’m currently a member of UCLA’s Bollywood dance team Nashaa and community service-based music club SLAM. I’m so excited to be part of this team of impassioned writers and to contribute to the conversation on South Asian representation in mainstream media. 

Instagram: @kanchan.raju 

Email: kanchanraju26@gmail.com

Better When I’m Dancin’

By Sona Bhargava

When my parents ever brought up the idea of enrolling me in a team sport as a kid, I immediately rejected it. Dance, however, was completely different from a ball game (no pun intended). I think what initially attracted me, as an introverted four-year-old, to dance, was the individualistic training and of course, the pretty costumes. 

I had a brief stint with ballet but what consumed most of my childhood dance career was Bharatanatyam, a technical style of Indian dance that incorporates both hand gestures, called mudras, and facial expressions to tell a story of religious origin. My guru was intense, and at times seemed harsh to me as a young child. Looking back, I recognize my guru’s passion and dedication to the art form, and am grateful for her weekly Hinduism lessons. I credit a portion of my tough skin to her and am thankful for her weekly lessons on discipline. 

As a child, waking up each Saturday for dance class excited me. After 11 years though, I wanted to explore past the confinements of a classical style of dance. Although I was strong in the technical aspect of Bharatanatyam, I wanted to dance at a higher energy level. When a new opportunity to dance Bollywood for the non-profit organization India Friends Association surfaced, I happily took it, and ended up sticking with it for the next 6 years. In my final years of high school, I led the team, which introduced a new kind of satisfaction element to dance that previously wasn’t there- watching my own elements come to life on the stage. Bollywood gave me a community of brown friends across the various high schools in my predominately white hometown and I knew I wanted to create similar bonds in college. 

At UC Davis, I surprised myself by joining the Raas-Garba team. I remember attending tryouts and watching YouTube videos of the team thinking there was no way I could keep up with the demands of such a fast-paced, high energy routine. I was a dancer, but by no means did I think of myself as athletic. Although I tried out on a whim and with a little push from my friends, I was delighted to join the team when I got on. Compared to the dance styles I was used to, Raas was different on my body. It was more demanding in terms of stamina and less demanding in terms of footwork. Dance also became a team effort, instead of an individual discipline. In Raas, it’s important to synchronize not only your moves, but the angles at which you perform these moves, with the rest of your team. I had also never been on a traveling dance team before, and the adrenaline rush from sleepless nights and long hours of practice brought a new thrill to the comfort of dance. Traveling also allowed me to easily get close to many members on the team, which is why I wanted to join a dance team in the first place. 

While initially the individuality expressed through dance was what appealed to me, I have learned that dance’s attraction does not only lie in the art form, but also in the connections fostered through the shared love of an activity. The lifelong friendships spawned from choreographing with a friend or trying out for a team together are the most valuable parts about trying out a new dance form. Being a third-generation Indian, dance also keeps me connected to my roots. It engages me with my culture, with my religion, and with peers who come from similar backgrounds. Whether it’s dancing Bharatanatyam in a tiny garage or performing with my Raas team onstage, I am grateful for the experiences and the networks of friends that have resulted from my dance career.

About Sona:

My name is Sona Bhargava and I am a 2nd-year Psychology and Sociology major at UC Davis studying to become a psychologist. Besides writing, I love to dance (shameless self-promo @ucdraasleela), paint, and travel. I can’t wait to connect with other writers and readers to help create the South Asian Productions community!

Instagram: @sonaabhargava


My Growth Through Dance

By Pooja Chimata

Dhalanku thaka thiku thaka tha dhing gi na thomThakadhimi thaka tha ki ta… “Dude, did you hear what I said?” my lab partner gently asks, waking me up, bringing me to my biology lab. 

I don’t like to admit it, but I daydream frequently. And it’s usually during important classes (oops) and it’s almost always about dance. Repeating the counts of each song is something that my brain has become programmed to do. I could spend hours a day thinking about each hand and foot movement, the energy, and the way I need to portray each expression to represent the Indian mythological characters, Rama, Shiva, or Devi, or even just replaying someone’s choreography that I saw on Bollyshake. 

Dance has been the one thing in my life that I’ve never really had to think much about; it’s a habit that’s become my passion. I started dancing, though Bollywood, at the age of four. After watching dozens of colorful and entertaining Bollywood movies, replicating the same steps, and wearing similar outfits, dance was not only a way to reconnect with my Indian culture, but it helped build my self-confidence. Being a painfully shy kid, I never smiled or talked to anyone, because I was so nervous and insecure about the way I looked and acted. But, as soon as I got on stage with a full face of makeup, a gorgeous embroidered dress, and my jewelry, I felt like a different person. Not to sound cheesy, but I truly felt like I was a Bollywood star when I danced. I was Madhuri Dixit. I was Aishwarya Rai. I was Deepika Padukone. It was a thrilling experience to break out of my shell, forget about my worries, and shake my hips like there was no tomorrow. 

Going to Bollywood dance competitions and performances became a part of my routine over the next seven years and Bollywood dance was the only thing that was ever on my mind. However, a plot twist came my way when I was almost ten years old. Well, I was pushed into it by my mother. She was convinced that I would become a more serious and technique-driven dancer if I studied Bharatanatyam, a South Indian classical dance, and took dance seriously instead of dance just as a fun activity. Bharatanatyam was so much more complicated, physically demanding, and intense compared to Bollywood; spending hours in aramandi (a diamond-shaped squat) while simultaneously doing intricate hand and feet movements and portraying various expressions made my entire body ache from soreness, and it didn’t seem like it was worth it. It also didn’t help that I was a 5’ 2’’ sixth-grader in a room full of five-year-olds, and I felt like I was starting at square one even though I had already been dancing for seven years at that point. It took me years to understand the complexity of this dance form, but something finally clicked when I reached more advanced levels of dance. The mythology of each dance and the meaning behind every smile, pleading glance, angry stare, and graceful embodiment was something that I could connect to Bollywood. Instead of pretending to be a Madhuri or Aishwarya, I was now portraying gods like Rama and Shiva. By depicting the various emotions of a Bharatanatyam dancer, I was subconsciously becoming a better communicator; my facial expressions were translating into verbal expressions outside of dance and it allowed me to better articulate my thoughts and opinions and become a more confident individual. It’s been almost a decade and a half since I first started dancing, but the lessons I’ve learned along the way have truly been life-changing. I’ve learned so much about friendship and dedication by learning these art forms and the relationships that have been fostered through dance are lifelong. Dance encouraged me to be comfortable with being uncomfortable and take big risks like joining the speech team in high school and even going to Minnesota for college, even when many people doubted me. The kind of self-confidence I’ve been able to gain through dance and choreography has made me realized that while dancing for a trophy and the glory is thrilling and exciting, the only person that I have to prove my worth and talent to is myself. 

The impact dance has had on my life is truly indescribable and I’m fortunate enough to have danced under selfless and committed gurus and make some of my best friends through it. Even though I may day-dream about dancing too often, the shy, insecure girl that was scared to be herself, probably wouldn’t have grown up to become the person I am today if it weren’t for dance. And you definitely will be hearing more about dance from me in the weeks coming 🙂

About Pooja:

My name is Pooja Chimata and I’m from the Bay Area and I’m currently studying Political Science and Economics at the University of Minnesota. I’m passionate about government and politics and being involved in local government efforts. I’m also passionate about dance, art, and food!

Instagram: @pooja.chimata


I was a dancer – I’m relearning how to be one.

By Sunayana Basa

My love for dance came from different places. The dedication I had — that came from my mom. A dancer herself, she practiced in India before she married my dad and had kids, but she kept performing when she could – that continued with me. The camaraderie came from all the girls I danced with throughout the years. Dance was where I learned how to work with others and to use everyone’s ideas to create something truly magical on stage. And the passion for dance? That came from my Indian roots. In India dance is revered: something that many little kids, dabble with. For me, it was never a question of “if” I would learn how to dance, it was a matter of when and how. 

I grew up in the Bay Area, a haven for Bollywood dance workshops and competitions such as Bollywood Berkeley. I remember watching the competitions every year in awe of the ambiance created by the set design, costumes, lighting, and more (you can see a few of my favorites here and here). Every year, captains and executive boards for each team are tasked with figuring out a theme for the dance, determining how to make a mix of the music, and coordinating hundreds of hours of practice, costumes, and funding for at least 15 other college students. Keep in mind, all of this is done while also attending classes and trying to get good grades.

When I went to college at Boston University, there was no doubt in my mind I would try out for their fusion Bollywood competitive dance, Jalwa. When sign up for different clubs were announced, I immediately sought out the Jalwa table and put my name down.  I realized that there was going to be a lot of competition just by the sheer length of the signup list. I learned that during the audition we would get some time to freestyle – as soon as I got back to my dorm, I began choreographing a few counts of eight that would demonstrate my technique and my versatility.

From the amount I prepared and stressed for my audition, you’d think I would remember more of it. Truth be told, most of the audition process is a blur. I remember I auditioned with two freshman guys who both hadn’t danced before, and I realized that I couldn’t just turn to them if I forgot the choreo. All of a sudden, I was alone, no longer having a team to fly or fail with. I was the oldest on my dance team in high school, so none of the girls knew any more about the Indian collegiate circuit than I did. I was the guinea pig, and I wanted to set the bar high. I wanted to prove that I did have what it took to be on the teams we idolized for so long and that all the training we had done was enough for us to achieve that.

I wish I could say I got onto the team because I was the best, because my technique was flawless and I made others feel the passion I brought. Honestly though, after watching my audition video, I think I really got in because I smiled throughout. There were multiple times in the video where I didn’t finish my movements, or worse, forgot what came next. The one thing that was consistent, however, was the expression on my face. 

Dance can be taught — you can learn how to point your toes, or how to be cleaner with your movements. All of that comes with hard work and practice. But the expression on your face, that’s more tricky. It is one thing to practice expressions when you are alone and dancing, but on stage with thousands of people watching and with lights blinding you, expression suddenly becomes that much harder. You are trying to remember a million things — which direction to go in, what costume you wear next, what to do if something goes wrong — and you don’t want the audience to know any of that. You have to be bigger, look happier, express yourself more than you think because the stage itself dwarfs you. To make an impact, you need to look like you’re having the best time of your life — anything else simply makes you look uninterested.

I spent one year on Jalwa. During this year, I laughed, cried, slept way too little, and danced almost every day. I was on a competing acapella team at the same time I was on Jalwa, and the combined rehearsals were, to say the least, rough. I got used to constantly jetting from one place to another, from class to acapella to dance. Any free time I had I used to stay on top of classwork, and on the off chance I had extra time, I would meet my friends outside of my performing teams. Essentially, for that first year, performing became my everything.

Photo Caption: 2014–2015 Jalwa Team

At first, I loved it. There was nothing else I wanted to do, and while it was tiring, I was so thrilled just to be on both teams that nothing could beat that. But as the school year trudged on and fall turned to spring, I started noticing the other things I wanted to try. My roommate, also in the business school with me, became more involved with different academic organizations and nonprofits. My friends who didn’t perform started to enjoy the springtime in Boston, spending their weekends exploring new neighborhoods and taking trips out to Martha’s Vineyard. And while I loved dancing and singing and all that I was doing, I couldn’t help but worry that I was missing out. I had only four years at Boston University, and only so much time in the day — did I really want to miss all of the memories I could be making doing new things because I was in a studio literally all the time?

This question weighed on me throughout my first year.  I was already a quarter of the way through my time in Boston, and had yet to do anything truly new and out of my comfort zone. Sure, dancing on a college team and doing acapella was new, but performing was not. If I really wanted to grow and experience BU, I needed to have more time outside of performing. And having more time meant quitting the dance team.

It wasn’t easy to feel like I was “quitting” dance. This was something so ingrained in my life for so many years, and to all of a sudden not have a class or rehearsal every day felt like I was betraying what I worked towards. I remember drafting the email to the Jalwa captains letting them know I wouldn’t be joining the team again, and I remember feeling like I made a mistake as soon as I hit send. There was no immediate sense of relief, or freedom, or feeling like I made the right choice for myself. Looking back, I am still not sure if there even was a right choice — it was honestly just two different options for what I wanted to do, neither one more correct than the other. Maybe I subconsciously knew that then, and that’s why it was so hard.

Now, it has been almost five years to the date that I sent that email to Jalwa and stopped performing with my competitive dance team. In that time, I joined numerous clubs, worked as a teaching assistant, volunteered at nonprofits, studied abroad, sang with my acapella team, hung out with my friends, and graduated with a business degree. I still dance, but to a much lesser degree than I used to, and to be honest, that is something I am still getting used to. I always see videos of other dancers on Instagram and YouTube and think, I can still do that, only to attempt it in my bedroom and realize it’s much harder than I thought. I still try to go to workshops, even though they have gotten more difficult.

It is interesting — you train your body for so many years that your brain knows what the correct movement is supposed to feel like, but without the constant practice, your body just can’t hit the moves the same way. There have been so many times I have wanted to cry in frustration when I don’t get the choreo correct, simply because I used to breathe dance and never second guessed if I could do it. I vividly remember tears trickling down my face when I came back from a workshop where I thought I could keep up, but instead stood in the back of the class watching my peers learn the choreo instantaneously while I was still on my first eight count. It was the first time where I felt truly defeated by something I loved, and that was a hard pill to swallow.

As much as it sucks, everything in life does have an opportunity cost. And while I don’t regret all the experiences I did get to have by taking a break from dance, it is difficult to accept what used to come so easily to me now takes time and patience. People stop their craft, whether it be dance, singing, or any other form of art, for multiple reasons. Maybe you got married or had a baby. Maybe you got injured, or you were taking care of someone who needed you. Or maybe, you just needed a break. That’s okay. Life happens. Sometimes, priorities shift, and you realize you need to be doing something else at this time. 
If there is one thing I learned from stopping dance and getting back into it, it is that showing up is the battle. That’s it. I’ve had to force myself to get out of my own head and go to a studio or to a class when I was scared I’d see myself fail. It is still hard, but it has gotten easier than before. You’d be surprised at how much you remember, and humbled by how much you don’t anymore. I’ve realized that by showing up, I am always one step closer to being back where I was. And as cheesy as it sounds, your art is not always an all or nothing situation. Sometimes you take steps back and just have to work yourself up again. And that’s okay. Because at the end of the day, the dance is still there.

About Sunayana:

Sunayana is from Marin County in the Bay Area, but went to Boston University and graduated in 2018 with a degree in Information Systems and Finance. She is currently back in the Bay and working as a consultant at PwC 
Instagram: @sunayanabasa