Thursday, July 8, 2010
In this episode of So You Think You Can Dance? two contestants perform a Bollywood number, then the judges analyze their dancing. They compare the movement to hip hop, to “African” and to Georgian State dancers without mentioning any dance form from India such as Bharatanatyam or Bhangra. I posted this a week ago, but then got into a conversation (argument?) with a friend who saw nothing unsettling about the comparisons made by the judges. My questions remain: why do the judges assume they are experts on dance when their comments make the performances into sport-like entertainment and fail to acknowledge any of the cultural history embedded in these dance forms? When one judge compares the ankle bells of the dancer -- in Bharatanatyam they are used to accent the rhythm of the feet and called ghungroos -- to Santa Claus sleigh, his comment makes me think this show is about championing consumption rather than honoring the knowledge that is embedded in these forms. The judges sound amazed by how similar the duet looks to hip-hop, when it is performed by two dancers who have probably had more classes in hip hop than dances of India. Is it really surprising that the routine ends up looking like hip-hop?
Bollywood refers to one part of the film industry in India: a conflation of the words Bombay and Hollywood. In 2002 Bollywood sold 3.6 billion tickets and had total revenues (tickets, DVDs, television etc.) of US$1.3 billion, whereas Hollywood films sold 2.6 billion tickets and generated total revenues (again from all formats) of US$51 billion. Bollywood movies feature elaborate song and dance numbers that draw from India’s dance heritage: Bharatanatyam, Bhangra and Kathak.
India’s dance forms – particularly Bharatanatyam -- are expressive, communicative and complex. They intertwine body, mind and spirit. A student who saw this episode when I showed it in class emailed me a long analysis that reveals the richness of the dancing and the ignorance of the judges’ comments: her family was from India. "The song they use is 'Dhoom Tana' from the movie Om Shanti Om which was released in Bollywood in 2007 and was a remake of a older Bollywood movie. People who keep up with Bollywood are very familiar with this movie as well as this song. It is actually one of my favorites! The actor, Shahrukh Khan is one the more famous older Bollywood actors and the actress debuted with this film is now one of the more famous actresses, Deepika Padukone. After watching this dance over again, I could pick out three styles of Indian dance that were used: Bhangra, Bharatanatyam, and Bollywood film dance. The beginning of the segment is Bharatanatyam, then Bollywood , and then the male dancer does Bhangra steps. The Bharatanatyam steps have extended arms with fast footwork while the Bollywood steps use more the torso and hip action. The Bhangra moves are very strong, rigid, and powerful. When I think about this song, its lyrics and context, it fits in the Bollywood dance genre: the music, the Hindi lyrics, and since it is from a Bollywood film all point towards that direction. As you know Bharatanatyam requires more classical music with certain beats and Bhangra is done to Punjabi (the language of the state of Punjab) music. Each of these styles of dance has it own specific music and moves but it is not unusual for Bollywood to mix them up or the people dancing to these songs to add in many different styles if the steps go with the music."
Cultural hegemony endangers the diversity of dance by denying the roots of certain forms of movement and expression. By making Bollywood's dancing into something “amazingly similar” to hip-hop, it becomes another commodity to be marketed and bought rather than a link to a culture that teems with fascinating dance forms of its own. When Mia Michaels says “It’s awesome to have World Dance on this stage,” I wonder which dance form wasn't created in this world? Aren't ballet, jazz, swing, modern, hip-hop and Bollywood all part of the same world? Or is she suggesting that this is “third world” dance?
When Gramsci wrote about hegemony he was referring to the “process by which a historical bloc of social forces is constructed and ascendancy of that bloc is secured." (from Stuart Hall, "The Problem of Ideology"). I see a link to hegemony in the disregard of Indian culture, but with a facade of representing diversity: Mia Michaels says “It’s so important to show the different cultures of dance,” when this is now nearly the end of her commentary and no mention has been made of any dance form from India. Given the millions of viewers who watch this show, and this being a moment in history when more and more people from all over the world are living and working side by side, this is a missed opportunity.
From The New York Times last week: “…rich, aging countries need workers. People in poor countries need jobs. And the rise in global inequality means that migrants have more than ever to gain by landing work abroad. Migration networks are hard to shut down. Even the worst economy in 70 years has only slowed, not stopped, the growth in migration. And it is likely to grow, in numbers and consequence.”