Penn Performers Celebrate Culture Through South Asian Dancing With a Twist

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Media Contact:Jeanne Leong | | 215-573-8151February 10, 2014

Penn Dhamaka’s energetic, arm-pumping, feet-shuffling, body-twisting dance routines are inspired by traditional South Asian dance, but the all-male troupe’s flair is all their own.

The University of Pennsylvania student performance group fuses a variety of dance styles in their sequences. In addition to classic South Asian dance, their moves are a mix of Bollywood, contemporary American dance, hip-hop and stepping.

“Traditional South Asian dance styles have been around for hundreds of years,” says Ankur Goyal, Penn Dhamaka chair. “By being a fusion team, we can start with those customs and traditions and say, How can we break the rules? It allows us to have a base, and then we jump off of that.”

The group’s high-energy style has cross-cultural appeal.

“The Bollywood style is just evolving,” Goyal says. “It’s current, so it inherently incorporates western moves and eastern moves. It’s a melting pot where you can’t even draw a line between them.”

The group dances at events and celebrations on campus and throughout Philadelphia. They’ve entertained at Spring Fling, Freshman Performing Arts Night and the annual South Asia Society show on campus. The team also performed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art at the opening of a South Asian arts exhibit.

Several times a year the group competes in college South Asian dance competitions. In November, Dhamaka, which means “explosive energy” in Hindi, won third place at the Aha Ka Dhamaka contest  at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“Sometimes we sit there and think, How can my body move?” Goyal says. “What plane haven’t I hit yet? We look at videos and get inspired by the videos we see.”

The group is open to anyone with an interest in South Asian style dance, but most members are South Asian. Currently the group also includes several dancers who are of East Asian descent.

Senior Stephen Ahn, who’s Korean American, joined the group in the fall after dancing in several other Penn dance troupes as a freshman and sophomore.  As a spectator, Ahn admired Dhamaka’s dynamic performances and wanted to become a participant in the shows.  In addition to mastering some new dance moves, Ahn has had an opportunity to learn much more about South Asian culture.

“I've danced South Asian styles, seen South Asian popular movies, heard popular music, eaten amazing cuisine and made many friends in Penn's South Asian community,” Ahn says.

During the day, most of Dhamaka’s 19 members are studying medicine, engineering or business, but in the evenings it’s dance time. The group spends about 15 hours a week practicing routines to perfect their intricate and spirited moves. 

“We all have the left brain side fully developed, but we all have that creative side, too,” Goyal says. “This is our outlet to get all of our ideas out and make a production of it.”

They’ll get a chance to show off their latest dance moves at their upcoming production, “Paint the Town,” Feb. 21-22 at the Iron Gate Theater at 37th and Chestnut streets.