shaping up

The Masala Groove

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Fitness dancing in the US has begun moving to a desi beat, thanks to a workout created by an enterprising Indian

You know Bollywood dance has entered main street in Anytown, USA, when you see it featured in glossies like People and Cosmopolitan, or better yet, in your local American newspaper. You know that this is not just a fad, and that there is serious money to be made in it when you see your local gym offering exercise or dance classes inspired by Hindi cinema moves. And from all accounts, there is actually serious money in ‘ethnic dance exercise’, now a booming part of America’s multi-billion dollar fitness industry.

The labels vary. Masala Bhangra, Bollycercise, Naachercise and what have you. And there are do-it-yourself videos like Bollywood Booty that have gained popularity from coast to coast. How big is the market? It is anybody guess, but it’s clear that there is a new market emerging that could prove to be a robust revenue generator.

Relatively unknown in the US until the start of the 21st century, Bollywood was largely confined to the desi enclaves of New Jersey, Virginia, California and a few other places. Sometime in the 1990s, Bollywood had entered university dorms, even as bhangra and filmi dance contests were slowly becoming a staple cultural offering. Its ambassadors were not fresh-off-the-boat Indians, but second-generation Indians, born and brought up in the US, who grew up listening to Hindi film music at home or desi community events. And suddenly, as if by design, Bollywood-inspired exercise classes have sprung up across the US over the past few years. You can find these classes now in New York, Connecticut, Minnesota, Colorado, Texas and California.


In many ways, it all began in California, thanks to the efforts of Sarina Jain of Masala Bhangra Company. She introduced this unique form of exercise to the US fitness industry, and was recently invited by the famed Alvin Ailey Dance Company of New York to offer her masala bhangra classes to their students. Given the company’s prominence, it came as a surprise. “I read the email from Alvin Ailey three times before I picked up the phone to call them,” admits Jain. She was thrilled, of course.

Born and brought up in Los Angeles, Jain grew interested in fitness as a teenager, which is when she became a certified aerobics instructor. After college, she found a way to blend two of her passions: fitness and Indian dance. What came of it was a new fitness routine that she called masala bhangra. This was in 1999. To expand her fledging business, Jain moved from LA to New York, and soon became a sought-after instructor in the local fitness circuit. To spread the word, she released a slew of do-it-yourself fitness DVDs, aimed mostly at South Asians. At first, while the desi response was disappointing, her novel workout struck a beat within mainstream fitness circles. A decade on, she now runs a franchise network, with dance and fitness instructors in various parts of the US training people with her exercise programme, which even gets a daily airing on FitTV. “Today,” she says, “the aunties and uncles are so proud that I put a positive light to our culture.”


Mickella Mallozzi and Dorie Wexler are trained dancers and certified fitness instructors who teach masala bhangra classes in New York and Colorado. “Every week, I teach about 11 classes all over New York City, including Equinox, 92ndY and the Jewish Community Center. Most of my students are non-desis,” says Mallozzi. “I started out as a student of Sarina’s at New York’s Crunch Gym in 2005, and never missed a class. The music was so addictive and the movements did not look like you were working out,” she adds.
Wexler, who moved from New York to Colorado Springs two years ago, offers Indian-inspired dance and exercise classes thrice a week. “People really enjoy the music and moving to Bollywood music,” she says, “It really works from a fitness factor.”

Jain serves as mentor and inspiration for many desi instructors who have taken her cue and are offering similar instruction at community centres around the country. South Asians are onto it at last, and while she is pleased about this, she also cautions desis against going in for a programme that lacks the requisite credentials.

Among the recognised are Texas-based Hybrid Rhythms, which offers dance classes and Bollywood aerobics, and recently held a Bollywood-themed retreat in Hawaii that featured exercise, dances and yoga. Here in Silicon Valley, there are a handful of dance instructors and companies—not all of them accredited by the fitness industry though—that offer Bollywood-inspired fitness and dance classes in various community centres and gyms. With about 200,000 desis living in the San Francisco Bay Area, you can expect still more to throw open doors.

If you untangle the different strands of its appeal, as an astute observer points out, you notice that different aspects of desi culture are being interwoven in new patterns. “The kids who are born and brought up here find Bollywood music very catchy—what appeals to them is the blended Westernised music that has elements of hip-hop and other Western influences that they recognise,” says Dr Maya Sastry, a Silicon Valley-based psychiatrist. “Bollywood acts as a cultural bridge between desi parents and children,” she adds, “It is also a way of exercising and connecting with the culture.”

Dr Sastry is on to something. Behind Jain’s motivation to blend her desi roots with her American fitness training was the desire to get uncles and aunties up and exercising. “I lost my father when he was very young,” she says, after having tried unsuccessfully to get him to stay fit. So her target audience includes folks of all ages, sizes and shapes. There are also mother-daughter classes being offered. “It is very interesting to see how the mothers connect with their Bollywood music and in the process get to exercise. And the daughters, on the other hand, get to listen to a genre of music that appeals to them and exercise to it. It is a win-win,” says Dr Sastry.

Yet, not everybody is celebrating its emergence. There are critics aplenty. Says Jain, “People are protesting that I am making money off bhangra…‘You’re not a Punjabi’.” No matter. She is working on her seventh video now, and is ready for a global footprint. She has already taken classes in Spain and Italy, to a warm reception, and her masala bhangra videos are selling in Japan. So if you see shoulders twitching in Tokyo to the rhythm, you’ll know what’s up.