The silver sequins on the bright red skirt of my Lehenga sparkled, catching the bright stage lights as I spun in crisp circles, adrenaline racing, dancing with all the energy I had inside me, for my final Raas competition of my senior year of college.
My obsession for dancing started way before this moment.
Dancing as a Kid
As a little girl, I loved to dance.
However, my mom put my sister and I in piano lessons, signed us up to volunteer at church, but for some reason, would refuse to put us in formal dance lessons.
Still, I found ways to express my desire to move to the beat.
One of my earliest memories dancing is at my babysitter's house at age 5 or 6, lining up with a couple other girls, shaking our fingers and bobbing our heads as we pantomimed Wannabe by Spice Girls.
I didn’t feel shy, I loved performing.
It’s not surprising that I always had a craving to dance, as an Indian, it’s a huge part of my culture.
Dance in India is an ancient tradition. Whether it’s Bhangra from Punjab, Garba from Gujarat or Bharatanatyam from Tamil Nadu, dance has always been a form of expression and celebration that tells a story passed down for generations.
The culmination of this is Bollywood, a film industry that launches 3 hour hits that are filled with musical numbers. Shah Rukh Khan and the leading lady of the moment always seem to fall in love while shimmying their shoulders and prancing across fields.
Even though I never had formal training for Indian dance, I took every opportunity I could to learn.
First Dance Performance
The first opportunity to dance on a stage was when I was in the sixth grade and the South Indians, more specifically Malayalees, in the Metro Detroit area started to organize a big cultural show every year.
A woman with a daughter my age approached my mom and asked if my sister and I wanted to do a dance with her daughter and a few other kids in our age group. She brought in a woman to teach us and over a few weeks, we’d all gather in my friend's basement and learn choreography to Koi Ladki Hai, a popular Bollywood song.
I was ecstatic. I don’t remember if I was nervous the first time I danced on a stage. What I do remember is my aunt slathering white makeup on my face, bright red lipstick and wearing long dark blue outfits with sheer white sashes tied around our waist. On stage, the lights shone in my eyes as I tried to look out into the crowd, seeing only a shadow of darkness over the audience, unable to make anyone out.
The music blared through the speakers and I danced my heart out.
Breathing heavy at the end as the crowd applauded to support us, I knew I was addicted.
For the next few years, my friends and I would buy bootleg Bollywood DVDs from Patel Brothers, the local Indian grocery store, and replay the popular dance numbers over and over again.
Standing in front of our TV, we’d try to pop out our hips on beat while fluttering our hands around our heads.
It wasn’t professional training, but I loved it.
When I went to high school, I doubled down on my love of dancing by organizing the South Asian dance for our school's Ethnic Fair every year.
I’d find all the South Asian women in my grade and bother them to come find me in some hallway corner after school to learn a dance one of my more talented friends would choreograph.
Dancing in College
I loved Indian dance so much that I knew I wanted to keep doing it in college. When YouTube came out, I watched different college Indian dance teams and saw there was a whole world of competitive Indian dance that was popping up around the country.
Looking back, it’s funny how top of mind this was to me. When one of my college applications asked me to write about what organization I would join if admitted, I wrote about how I wanted to join the school’s Raas-Garba team that I had seen on YouTube.
At that time, Indian dance teams were so obscure, I’m sure that was the first time the admissions team had heard of their Raas team.
During the first week of school, I sought out the Indian dance teams on Club Day, introduced myself to everyone and signed up for tryouts.
There were three Indian dance teams at my school, and I made time to go to all three tryouts.
I was an enthusiastic dancer, but compared to my peers, not very good. The Indian women who often made the cut had been dancing their whole lives. Many had completed their Arangetram at the end of high school, a final performance for teenage women who have been trained in classical Indian dance since they were kids.
Even though the competition was enormous, I didn’t care. My goal wasn’t to be the best, I just wanted to dance.
My first semester freshman year, I remember the Bollywood and Raas teams cut me after the first round.
Then the Bhangra team called me to come back for a second round of tryouts and I was ecstatic.
The head of the Bhangra team called everyone after tryouts. I remember seeing an unknown phone number on my giant Blackberry and picking it up, heart beating fast.
I didn’t make the team.
The guy sounded so sad on the phone when he broke the news to me, and so I reassured him that I was OK and let him know I was sure these calls sucked.
He seemed relieved and invited me to a party he was hosting for all the Indian dance teams. This shifted my entire mood because I did want the opportunity to meet and befriend everyone.
At the end of my freshmen year, the Raas team did another round of tryouts, and I showed up again, this time lucky enough to make the team.
For the next three years I dedicated three evenings a week to learning choreography so that I could perform around campus and pray that I’d get chosen to dance in a competition.
I wasn’t the best dancer, nor the second, third or fourth best and it was a while before I was put into the line up for a competition. Raas competitions were held at universities around the country and our team could only afford to go to one or two each year.
I wasn’t upset about not being the best, but I was committed to improving. I showed up more often than people more talented than me partially because I needed the practice more and also because it didn’t occur to me to not go.
Looking back, it’s a little crazy to me how much time I dedicated to dance in college. I’d go to almost every practice, even though dancing for the Raas team didn’t improve my grades nor was something I could brag about in a job interview.
Our team was objectively only OK. We never placed in major competitions.
Still, it was important to me.
My dedication paid off and in my senior year I was put in the line up for both competitions that year.
I still remember being on stage for my final performance at Georgia Tech. Something with the team just clicked that day.
My body moved as if the choreography was programmed inside me, my brain wasn’t thinking about each step, I was simply dancing.
Our formations seemed to perfectly line up, every move in sync, arms and legs hitting at the exact same angles.
When we exited the stage, we all looked at each other, breathing heavy and basking in the feeling of leaving everything we had on stage.
During the award ceremony, when we found out we placed third, the whole team started crying on stage. Black tears streaked my face, my heavy stage makeup washing off as I cried and hugged my teammates.
I don’t know if anyone has ever felt so happy placing third.
Dancing as an Adult
After college I moved to San Francisco and I kept dancing, but never with the intensity and obsession that came with dedicating three evenings a week to learning choreography with a team.
Embracing a beginner’s mindset again, I branched out to different types of dancing.
I took salsa lessons at a bar on Saturdays and tried to get my feet to keep up with the 1-2-3 beat. A woman once nailed my foot with her high heel shoe, and I struggled a lot with naturally moving my hips, but I still had so much fun and loved being spun around the dance floor by a more capable partner.
I went to weekly hip hop classes for a while. I learned to “kick ball change” for the first time while everyone else in my beginner’s class seemed like they had danced off the set of a music video.
One year, a class opened up for anyone interested in learning the then trendy “Sorry” by Justin Bieber choreography. Seeing this, a couple of my old Raas friends and I decided to sign up.
On a sunny day on the water, outside the bustling Ferry Building, I danced for my first hip hop performance and flash mob, popping and locking as best as I could for a growing audience.
I still love dance, but these days, I live in a small town and have no dance classes I can attend.
My obsession with dance has become a faint heartbeat compared to what it once was.
Some days though, I’ll throw on some old Bollywood tunes as I wash my dishes; shimmying my shoulders as I soap up some mugs, throwing in some spins as I fill up the dishwasher, feeling the familiar love for dance creep up as I pour in the detergent and throw in a final small kick-ball-change.
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Thank you to my writing friends, particularly for prompting me to write around the theme of obsessions this week. My love of dance took a life of its own in this essay.
You had me from ‘when YouTube started’ all the way to your final ‘kick-ball-chain.’ As a fellow dancer, I love this throwback to your beginners mindset showing up in all your dancing chapters in life.
Great piece, Michelle! And the closing is just spectacular. Nice photos too! I have to say I’m highly satisfied with the outcome of my prompt. Brava! 👏🏻