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UNC's vibrant culture of Indian dance comes to life in spring competition season

The members of Tar Heel Raas, an Indian dance organization at UNC-Chapel Hill, rehearse at Rams Head Recreation Center on Monday, Feb. 17, 2020.

UNC has four major Indian dance teams. It's competition season for the groups, so The Daily Tar Heel watched rehearsals and interviewed representatives from each team to capture their specialization, style and personality.  

Tar Heel Raas

Thump, thump. Thwack!

Sharp, synchronized sounds ring through the multipurpose room at Rams Head Recreation Center. About a dozen dancers pivot around the floor, each holding two wooden sticks, called dandiya. The dancers clash them together while hopping, stomping and twirling.

When they use the dandiya, the dance is called Raas. When they don’t, it’s called Garba. Tar Heel Raas specializes in both.   

Raas and Garba come from Gujarat, a state in western India, Tar Heel Raas co-captain Nirbhay Sutaria said. They are folk dances that are traditionally performed at weddings, ceremonies and festivals — particularly a Hindu festival called Navaratri.

Sutaria said that although Tar Heel Raas incorporates the traditional liturgical elements of these dance styles, the group generally performs a more energetic, competitive, “Americanized” version.   

As they rehearse, the dancers laugh and affectionately poke fun. The atmosphere is friendly, but it’s also intense. The group focuses, trying to coordinate its movements with exact precision. Along with their t-shirts and Nike shoes, the women are wearing their costume skirts — ornate garments with stripes of turquoise, violet, light pink and gold.

It’s second semester, so it’s competition season for Tar Heel Raas. Sutaria said that lately, they’ve been practicing eight to 12 hours each week, dancing until midnight.  

Sutaria, a junior statistics major, has danced with Tar Heel Raas since his first year at UNC. He said his family is from Gujarat, where Raas and Garba are most popular, and dancing with this group helps him stay in touch with his roots. He said because the group rehearses and travels together so much, the dancers become very close. 

“I love it a lot,” he said. “I think it’s the best thing that I’ve done in college.”

As the dancers of Tar Heel Raas practice, theirs aren’t the only audible sounds. Another cacophony can be heard just feet away, in the gym — where UNC Chalkaa is rehearsing.  

UNC Chalkaa

“One, two, three, four! Five, six, seven, eight!” The co-captains call out the counts, yelling over the basketballs bouncing on the opposite half of the court.

Dressed in joggers, these dancers are engaging in a full-body experience. They leap in the air, they wiggle on the ground, they circle their hips. It’s approaching 11 p.m., but they move with energy.

In two weeks, UNC Chalkaa is heading to South Asian Showdown, a competition in Boston. Each competition season, the group chooses a different theme for its set — a different story to tell. Last year, it was "Monsters, Inc." This year, it’s "Mary Poppins."

UNC Chalkaa Internal Manager Anoova Guthikonda said each segment of the group’s seven-minute-long competition set highlights a different portion of the "Mary Poppins" story. For example, they will use a loud, energetic form of Indian dance to represent the unruly children. For Mary Poppins’ arrival, they will use classical dances like Bharatanatyam and Kathak.

“We use the different styles of dance to kind of go hand-in-hand with the story that we tell to make it a more captivating show for the audience,” Guthikonda said.    

Style variety is UNC Chalkaa’s specialty. An Indian-American fusion dance group, it performs Indian dance styles like Bollywood and Bhangra, along with American genres like jazz, hip-hop and contemporary.  

“It's supposed to be representative of our identities as Indian Americans, as Asian Americans, because everyone on the team listens to both Indian music and American music, and it's just a part of our identity,” Treasurer Keshav Javvadi said. “And so, we wanted to bring that identity to life on stage. So that's where the fusion part comes in."   

Javvadi and Guthikonda said that while most of the dancers are of Indian descent, there are no restrictions, and the group welcomes diversity.    

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Ek Taal

With nine members, Ek Taal is UNC’s smallest Indian dance group — but consider it to be a formidable force.

Ek Taal practices Bharatanatyam, an ancient Hindu temple dance from southern India. Bharatanatyam requires years of highly specialized training. Many of Ek Taal’s dancers have trained for more than a decade.    

Traditionally, Bharatanatyam was performed to honor specific Hindu gods and goddesses by telling their stories. Dancers would portray the deities using gestures and facial expressions. 

“While in the past, stories of devotion or stories about gods and goddesses may have been what's applicable toward that audience, we believe that we can use our art form for a lot more in terms of storytelling,” said  Ek Taal Co-Captain Gayathri Das. 

In their competition piece this year, Ek Taal aims to use the Bharatanatyam narrative style to raise awareness of abuse toward Indian women.

Das said that when a woman gets married in India, the groom’s side of the family might require her to pay a dowry. This has been illegal since 1961, but it continues to happen. Das said that sometimes, even after the couple is married, the husband and his family will demand more payment that the bride can't obtain.

“In a lot of cases, the bride will get killed because of the increasing demand, or she will commit suicide,” Das said. “So ultimately, she will fall victim to some sort of violence or death. And we want to portray that even though it's been outlawed, it's still a pretty severe problem, and there should be some sort of call-to-action because we as a culture are definitely better than practices like that."

Ek Taal won first place for the piece at its first competition this year, which took place at N.C. State in January. The group will perform the routine next at a competition in Dallas on Feb. 29.

Bhangra Elite


These words were printed on one dancer’s t-shirt at Bhangra Elite’s rehearsal on Tuesday. Nonetheless, the dancers wore massive smiles as they ran through their competition routine. When the they finished their first run of the day, the music shut off, and the Woollen Gym dance studio filled with panting.  

It’s crunch time for this group — they’re competing in Maryland this weekend, and Pennsylvania the next. 

“It's really important to make sure everything is on-point and perfect so that nothing goes wrong and we do the best that we possibly can on Saturday,” Public Outreach Chair Aayush Purohit said.   

Bhangra is a fast-paced, energetic dance from Punjab, a state in northern India. It entails rapid movement and precise synchronization.

At one point during Bhangra Elite's competition routine, the dancers pick up Punjabi percussion instruments called saaps. They hold the two ends of the saaps and extend their arms, and the saaps unfurl like accordions. When they push the ends back together, a loud smack resounds. The dancers clap the saaps in unison, adding visual and auditory dimension to the dance.    

“It's something really important to maintain those traditional different ways to do it, but also make it interesting and unique and applicable to today's time,” Purohit said.

Purohit said the main mission of Bhangra Elite is to spread passion for Punjabi culture and dance in general, both on campus and across the country. He said Bhangra’s popularity is on the rise throughout the U.S., even among non-Indian people.

“That's something that we're really happy to see as we spread the culture, spread the tradition to everybody and whoever would like to be a part of it,” Purohit said.