Young dancers promoting cultural awareness

Shan-e-Punjab dancers (front row

Shan-e-Punjab dancers (front row

It’s Vaisakhi on the Hindu calendar, and while the streets of India fill for the new year’s and harvest festival, a Victoria dance troupe is bringing the celebration to a local audience.

Shan-e-Punjab will showcase more than 80 dancers from age 3 to 22 in its 20th annual cultural celebration. The two-hour event features modern bhangra and Bollywood dance, which club founder Sonia Grewal describes in a technical sense as “like ballet, but sped up 20 times.”

Outfitted in the bold colours and styles worn in India – long embroidered shirts over loose-fitting pants – the dancers tell a story of Punjabi life, mixing drama into the routines. A lift might represent a bird or cow in a story about harvest time, or a skit might show a coming-of-age ceremony.

“There’s some acrobatics. In one, the girls climb on each other’s shoulders three high,” Grewal said. “I always grind my teeth when I see it, hoping they won’t fall.”

The audience is always part of the entertainment, she said.

“They’re roaring and cheering, it’s not a quiet formal event. It’s meant to be fun.”

Each dance can stretch upwards of eight minutes and several pieces of music are mixed together to tell the story. While the lyrics are in Punjabi, an English translator will interpret some of what’s said.

“It’s our largest event of the year, the dancers really look forward to it,” Grewal said. “Their excitement comes out on stage.”

Besides being an opportunity for the dancers’ families to see their work and a way for Indo-Canadians to celebrate an important time of year, Grewal said the event helps promote multiculturalism.

“People who have never been exposed to Indian culture will learn something about our traditions. This group has always been as much about education as it is about dancing.”

Shan-e-Punjab regularly performs at schools, seniors homes and cultural events. Last summer they were featured in the India Festival in Centennial Square. Some of the older students also dance competitively, in events such as the Greater Victoria Dance Festival, where judges may not know the traditional basis for their dance, but still enjoy its form.

“It’s something you can’t see every week,” Grewal said. “It’s something different, and we love the reaction when people are exposed to the dances for the first time.”

Grewal, 42, founded Shan-e-Punjab with a dozen friends in 1993 as a way to teach Indo-Canadian youth about their culture. Not formally trained in dance, she’s been practising the traditional dance form as long as she can remember – modelling her moves off what she saw in Bollywood movies as a youngster.

The last founding member still with the group, she’s passed on much of the instruction to advanced-level students who have worked their way up. “We have girls who have been with us for 15 or more years. They’ve become amazing dancers.”

The Vaisakhi celebration happens April 30, 6:30 p.m. at the University of Victoria’s Farquhar Auditorium.

Tickets ($12 for adults, $7 students) can be purchased in advance at the UVic box office, by phone at 250-721-8480 or online at www.auditorium.uvic.ca.

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