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Hindi Music Meets Western Aerobics for Hot Cross-Cultural Exercise

May 5, 2006

I was desperate for a new way to sweat. A slow spring and a prolonged cold had kept me from my usual outdoor morning run. I dreaded the monotony of exercise machines but felt guilty that my pricey gym membership was fast collecting dust. I officially had fallen off the workout train.

Just in the nick of time, I’m sent on an assignment to write about a growing fitness trend: Bollywood aerobics. Working while getting a workout? Sign me up!

Based on the same high-energy Hindi music and modern choreography featured in popular films from India’s entertainment capital, Mumbai, Bollywood aerobics meshes mainstream aerobics steps and Western dance influences _ from hip-hop to salsa _ with Indian folk and classical dance.

The class sounded like the perfect antidote to my inactivity rut. It also offered a healthy dose of culture. My only experience with anything remotely Bollywood was a Sunday afternoon of homemade chai and melodramatic Aishwarya Rai movies with my friend Ajai, who shamelessly gushed over the stunning star, known as “the Julia Roberts of India.”

My first foray into the world of ethnic dancercize began at the bustling India Community Center in Milpitas, Calif. For a $5 drop-in fee, or a $40 unlimited annual pass, I could join an enthusiastic group of men and women in their 30s and 40s amped for an hourlong class.

The perky young instructor, Samita, got the 30 of us moving in the cozy dance studio with a 10-minute warm-up of stretches. Her pony tail bobbed atop her head as she shouted out counts of four over the booming beats of a Bollywood techno remix.

My out-of-breath cohorts later tell me that the class’s biggest draw is the catchy music, a blend of old world and new.

“It’s the music Indians have grown up with and love,” says Anu Dugyala, a 34-year-old software developer who takes the class at least twice a week. “It’s what I normally listen to. It doesn’t even feel like an hour _ the time just flies by.”

It’s not the music I normally listen to, which is what made the class especially entertaining for me. The contemporary bass lines _ similar to the beats you would hear at a house or hip-hop club _ are overlaid with a chorus of boisterous voices singing poetic lyrics in Hindi, usually about romantic love, according to www.bollywoodworld.com.

For someone who doesn’t stray far from jamming out to Mary J. Blige and Kanye West on my iPod, the tunes got my heart pumping and were a refreshing change of pace.

Samita turned up the heat, and the next 25 minutes was a fast-paced cardio segment combining basic aerobics footwork, such as the box step, touch step and grapevine, with swift, rhythmic upper body movements derived from Indian dance, such as Bhangra. Some of the guys in the class whooped, clapped and hollered as they danced, keeping the class upbeat and the energy level high.

I was a little lost in the beginning, but after observing Samita and the others around me, I quickly learned the moves, including shimmeying shoulders and sharp hip thrusts. Having taken plenty of aerobics classes before, the footwork came naturally. By the end of the segment, I had caught on.

We spent the remaining 25 minutes doing typical body sculpting and then cooling down. Classes focus on working different muscle groups and change from day to day; this time it was all about abs.

Lying on our backs with palms to the floor, the most challenging exercise called for having the knees locked, legs straight and feet in air, slowly drawing the numbers one through nine both forward and then backward with our toes. My out-of-shape lower stomach muscles gave up after number six, but I couldn’t wait to come back, master the dance steps, and get to number nine upon my return.

Mona Sampath, senior program manager of Bollywood dance and aerobics at the community center, says the classes have ballooned from two per week when she started in January 2003 to 16 classes per week.

The demand is so high, she says, that she plans to add more classes at varying skill levels once the community center moves to a larger space next door in the coming months. Those attending the classes are mostly Asian Indians, or of Indian descent.

“Anything having to do with India and Bollywood has become popular and cool and is crossing over into the mainstream,” says Sampath, 27, also the artistic director for the Bay Area Naach Bollywood dance company. “Bollywood movies are improving in quality, they’re being marketed more widely, and the dance is a fusion of East and West that people here feel connected to.”

Bollywood dancercize turned out to be even better than I had imagined. The spirited music and playful dance moves had swept me back onto the workout train. I finally found a new way to sweat.

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A GUIDE TO BOLLYWOOD AEROBIC DANCE MOVES

Here are some typical dance moves from Bollywood aerobics, which blends mainstream aerobics steps with Indian folk and classical dance and other Western dance influences, including hip-hop, disco and salsa:

“Bhangra hands”: A repetitive motion in which both hands reach toward the sky at a 45-degree angle to the right and then to the left. Shoulders move up and down while both hands twist toward the body to the beat in a motion that mimics screwing in light bulbs. Bhangra is a type of folk dance and music from India’s Northern region of Punjab.

“Jhatka”: A half-skip, half-jump step that resembles an aerobic move commonly called “rocking horse.”

“Tumka”: A hip shake from side to side, derived from traditional Indian folk dance.

Pointing: Disco-inspired. Index fingers of both hands point with the rest of your fingers curled. Arms extend toward the ceiling or toward the floor, either alternating or together to the rhythm of the tabla hand drums. Often the movement is a literal interpretation of the Hindi lyrics of Bollywood music. For example, the singer may be referring to the heavens, so dancers point upward.

Box step: A basic dance step named after the pattern the feet make on the floor in the shape of a box or square. It is incorporated in many types of Western dance and aerobics.

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(c) 2006, San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.).

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PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): health-bollywood

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