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Every dance company has their own signature style, something that sets them apart from the others. The Dholrhythms style is a fusion of bhangra and giddha, with a blending of traditional and contemporary movements. I’ve heard people describe our style as “feminine, elegant bhangra,” “rich in hand gestures,” and even “effortless looking.” If they only knew!

Our style, of course, has a lot to do with Vicki, and the way she dances and creates. But it also has a lot to do with the rest of us, and the dance backgrounds that we bring: ballet, baratnatyam, hip-hop, middle eastern, latin, college-team bhangra, “bollywood,” and other Indian folkstyles. You may not see it explicitly, but it’s there, in how each of us individually interprets a given choreography in our bodies. The trick is to be a cohesive whole, and at the same time, each uniquely ourselves.

This goes not just for the dancing, but also for creating the choreographies. All of us have contributed at some time to the Dholrhythms dance repertoire, but currently, most of the choreography that Vicki doesn’t take on will go to Rajni or to me. Two of us, or all three of us, will split a song into sections, which we choreograph separately. You might not think that would work, but it does — the three of us have danced together for a long time now, and even though we have different approaches to music, our styles have blended together over the years. We’re uniquely ourselves, but we’re all Dholrhythms, too.

Recently, Rajni, Vicki, and I got to talking about how we each approach a choreography. How long does it take? Do we choreograph to the beat, the instrumentation, or to the words? How long does it take us to “dance it out,” and what’s the process for doing that?

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Vicki, center.
Photo by Brad Dosland, Taboo Media

Vicki grew up dancing giddha, not bhangra, and that influences how she creates. Giddha is danced to traditional verses, called boliyaan, and the dancers sing and act out the words of the boli as they dance. So even with bhangra songs (or hip-hop, or latin), she usually choreographs to the words, with a mixture of bhangra and giddha moves.

It’s actually harder for me to choreograph straight-up bhangra style, because without the words to inspire me with variations, I’m feel like I end up using the same moves over and over again too much. It’s taken me a while to get more comfortable with choreographing that way, just to the beat, with more repetition.

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Rajni, center.

Rajni, on the other hand, comes from a bhangra-team and hip-hop perspective: she choreographs to the beat.

Choreographing to the lyrics was harder for me at first, because I don’t really listen to the words of the songs that I dance to. I’m starting to think about the lyrics more now, because we choreograph songs together, and you two choreograph to the words. But now that I’m more conscious of the lyrics, I find that the words help me to come up with the “big moves” that I center my choreographies around.

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Nina, foreground.

I was taught to dance by “following the music,” and I follow the instrumentation as much as the beat. The instrumentation suggests moves to me — for instance, horns and bowed string instruments “feel” like flowy moves, or like spins; percussive instruments feel like crisper, poppier moves. I like choreographing to the words, too. As Vicki might say, the lyrics constrain your choice of gestures, in a good way. It’s harder for me (and for Rajni) of course, since we don’t speak Punjabi, but Vicki translates the lyrics for us. It’s actually quite fun.

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What’s the Process Like?

Rajni and I both spend a few days just listening to the song, to get a feel for it. Rajni will listen on headphones, in bed, on the bus, just absorbing. For me, there are always a few sections of the song that grab my attention during this stage — a catchy chorus or verse, a beautiful instrumental passage, some lyrics I really like. I’ll start dancing out moves to those sections first, before I get to the “official” choreography phase. What I come up with doesn’t always stay in the final version, but it helps.

Vicki can’t just listen; she has to move around to the song to get a feel for it.

I like to wear headphones when I dance — it helps me feel like the music is more in my body. I just dance around for a while in front of a mirror, getting a sense of what kinds of moves and gestures go with different passages of music, and with different lyrics. As I dance, I’ll see certain moves that I really like, and I try to remember them for when I’m ready to put it all together. Then when I’m ready, I choreograph from the beginning to end, in sections. I count each section out, make it up, and just go.

Rajni’s “dance around” stage comes once she feels like she’s absorbed the song, and she’s in front of the mirror ready to choreograph.

I get in front of the mirror and dance. I don’t choreograph in any particular order, just what inspires me at any moment. When I come up with a move or sequence of moves that I like in a certain passage of a song, I try to expand it out in both directions until I get stuck. Then I record what I’ve done and start freestyling more until something grabs me, and then I expand out again. Usually I also have a few “big moves” that I’ve come up with at some point in the process, that I know I want to fit in somewhere.

When I have enough to fill up most of the song, then I stitch the parts together, rearranging parts or re-choreographing moves if I need to.

I choreograph from beginning to end, like Vicki, keeping in mind the parts I’ve already tentatively made up. Like Rajni, I do revise as I go: sometimes I decide that a combo I had earlier in the song goes better in a later passage, or sometimes as I’m dancing what I’ve choreographed so far, I’ll decide a certain section just doesn’t feel right with the music, or with the other moves. So then I rearrange things.

I don’t always choreograph in front of a mirror, but rather by how things feel in my body. I do like to see the choreography in front of a mirror before I decide it’s done, but sometimes the first time that I really see it properly is when I’m in the studio teaching it to the other Dholrhythmers!

We all agree — it takes a really long time to come up with a few minutes of dance. But the results are worth it. Here’s a performance of “Chhankake Chudiyaan” from NSB 95 (Michelle wrote about the song’s lyrics and theme a few posts ago). It was choreographed by all three of us. It’s fun to see how we all used so many similar gestures, but with different twists in the way we used them. Can you tell where each of us finished and the next person began?

All photos by Odell Hussey Photography, unless noted.