When Sarina Jain told folks she would bring Indian dance to the fitness industry, many laughed at her. But, today, 14 years later, she’s done just that. Real Health spoke with Jain before one of her regular classes at New York City’s Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater where she teaches the program.
What led you to the idea that Masala Bhangra could build a great exercise program?
Many things. The main purpose is to honor my father. He is the inspiration and the reason why I’ve got to keep this alive. I want him to know I’m very proud to be Indian. I was raised in the [United] States in a very Indian environment. We eat Indian food and speak the language. I’m like an ambassador of the culture—Bollywood, bhangra, everything!
Bollywood, we know, refers to the Hindi film industry in India. But what exactly is bhangra?
Bhangra is a male folk dance. The movements are very masculine, very tight. It’s a harvest dance; it’s a farmer’s dance. You’re calling out to the beat of the drum. It’s about the time of the farmers when their crops are about to grow. But times have changed, and now women dance bhangra as well. Bhangra is like this secret that nobody knows. This is why I did Masala Bhangra 14 years ago because I knew people would know Bollywood. But bhangra is what I’m passionate about, to bring that to people. And my instructors who teach Masala Bhangra are like ambassadors of the Indian culture within the area for what we do. It’s like African dance. If you like the music and the dance, then you’re going to find out more about the culture.
With Masala Bhangra, I knew that people love to dance and get up and move, so, I felt like let me bring Indian dance to the fitness industry on a global level. But I just knew that Indian dance would be appreciated. It just had to be shown in such a way that it’s not intimidating. It’s intoxicating, it’s not hard, and it’s empowering. I tell everyone to channel their feminine side to Bollywood and their masculine energy to Bhangra. When you put it together, you get Masala Bhangra. Basically, I took my culture and what we do in Bollywood movies and I put a name to it and I modified it just enough so the average person can understand it. There was a time when no one believed in the idea; they told me, “Please don’t waste your time.” Now, those same people are very proud of me and that I did something different.
How did you modify the steps of Masala Bhangra to make the dance more fitness friendly and effective?
First, Masala Bhangra is done on the 32 count. (In aerobics, music is phrased in a 32-count beat to allow instructors to choreograph combinations and routines that end up “on the right beat.” If aerobic instructors use music that isn’t on a 32-count beat, students will find it difficult to follow the music, and the exercise routine will finish on the wrong foot.) Any aerobics instructor who’s been teaching aerobics on a 32 count will understand how Masala Bhangra is taught. Second, I gave names to the steps, such as the bhangra slide—just like in old-school aerobics you have a move called the grapevine. I named all the movements in Masala Bhangra, so it’s really easy for the person coming to class to identify. The most effective instructors break movements down so their students can understand and put them together. That’s where the excitement comes in. Masala Bhangra is fun and easy to choreograph, but at the same time I challenge you. Everyone in life needs a challenge, so why not through a dance class?
Can anyone at any fitness level participate in this dance?
I have people of different ages come to all Masala Bhangra classes around the world. The movements are modified. For example, if I do a turn, you don’t have to do a turn; maybe you just walk into the movement. Even if you’re not able to move as much as the person in front of you, you might be able to at least work toward it. But I would rather have you do something than just sit on the couch and watch us. Wherever you are in life, still participate, become involved in the big picture. It’s a matter of, “Oh my God, that looks really hard. I probably can’t do it” versus “I am just going to get out of my comfort zone and try.” Even if you’re not able to get a step, or if you get all the steps except one—OK, you’ll be fine, just keep coming back. Masala Bhangra is addictive!
What do you hope students get out of your Masala Bhangra classes?
When I first started Masala Bhangra, it was a fitness program. During the years that Masala Bhangra has grown, it’s become a lifestyle. People have come to me and said, “Your classes have changed my life,” or “Your classes have added spice to my marriage, your classes have added spice to me having more confidence,” or “I’ve lost weight from your classes.” Really, there are so many different elements, and for many people it wasn’t just that they lost weight. In a nutshell, I truly hope that when people experience Masala Bhangra, one, they’re open-minded to the culture and, two, they give me a chance to get into their heart, because everybody wants to feel love and, three, that people come experience their masculine side and their feminine grace through bhangra and Bollywood and walk away just feeling completely empowered.
How easy is it to learn the steps of the Masala Bhangra from a home workout?
I have 12 workout videos. There’s definitely one that should work for anyone. The beauty about my DVDs is that there’s no level. It is choreography based so my first workout video that came out in 2000 is still very popular today! But you absolutely can learn these movements at home. Pop in one of the workout videos and find comfort in your own home if you’re uncomfortable to come to a class. But do something. Whether you do Masala Bhangra or not, get up and start moving. It’s easier said than done, but it is really all mental.
How are your Masala Bhangra classes different from other dance fitness classes?
We’re the new kid on the block. But I’m blessed with the fact that people love this program. And I’m sure quite a few copycats have come my way. But I appreciate them saying to me, You’ve inspired us to go create our own Indian dance workout. I’m glad I inspired you. I did all the work. I knocked on all the doors. But the idea of Indian dance is a staple. It’s becoming very clear that Bollywood and bhangra are here to stay in the United States.