A dedication to dance

The UC Santa Cruz Kaahani dance troupe, a Bollywood dance team, has tackled obstacles with creativity and commitment as it works toward getting noticed in the collegiate dance world—and its hard work is paying off.

Sumana Krishnakumar (College Nine ‘19, molecular, cell, and developmental biology) practices her dance routines until the performance becomes a matter of instinct. Photos by Yin Wu.
Nagashree Setlur (Stevenson ‘17, global economics) is one of Kahaani’s founders.

Around midnight on a weekday, you’d expect the Social Sciences building to be mostly empty—maybe a few students might be quietly studying, riffling pages, perhaps tapping out thoughts on a keyboard during a late-night brainstorm. And … dancing?  

Yes—dancing. The members of the student dance troupe Kahaani have let nothing stand in their way of expressing themselves through dance—not even having to practice in unusual spaces at atypical times. Since its founding in 2014, the 19-member team has had to find creative solutions to the challenges that come with entering the competitive Bollywood dance circuit.

During these after-hours practices, a small wireless speaker plays a mixture of pop, hip-hop, and Bollywood music, also known as “filmi” music, which is used in dance routines in Indian films. Bollywood musicals are renowned for their elaborate, high-energy dance routines with classical movements and nimble performers.

Because they’re the first Bollywood dance team on campus, everything from constructing sets and designing costumes to finding a practice space has been a learning process, said Nagashree Setlur (Stevenson ‘17, global economics), one of Kahaani’s founders. “We’re basically the guinea pigs,” she said.

Before a competition, one can find Kahaani’s co-captains Setlur and Sumana Krishnakumar (College Nine ‘19, molecular, cell, and developmental biology) in a San Jose warehouse haggling for discounts on bolts of colorful fabric. Once they fix a price, the fabric goes to Krishnakumar’s mother, who sews the team’s costumes.

Hard work pays off

The group’s focus and hard work has been paying off. This year, Kahaani has been accepted to Bollywood Berkeley, a prestigious competition that will allow the team to begin earning points within the Desi Dance Network, an organization that nurtures and encourages artists interested in competitive South Asian dance. Teams with the most points go on to Bollywood America, the championship for collegiate Bollywood dancers. This year’s competition will be held April 8 in Dallas, Texas.

At the Berkeley competition, Kahaani will perform an eight-minute dance routine in the Bollywood fusion style, a blend of Bollywood with American popular music influences. A short film precedes the dance, introducing the characters and the theme of the performance. The film segues into the live routine, which contains the setup, conflict, and resolution of the story.

The routine begins when the team runs on stage, jolting the audience with a blast of color and sound. The troupe aligns itself in sharp formations with equal space between each dancer. Energy stays high throughout the show as the dancers carry out full-body steps at whirlwind speeds, in perfect sync with the rest of the team. Brief interludes with dialogue advance the plot.

“Our performance is essentially a very small Bollywood movie,” says Setlur.

As part of their application for the dance competition, contestants must submit a short, single-take audition tape showcasing the dancers and a sample of the team’s choreography. If the video passes muster, the troupe gets accepted to perform at the competition.

Born into Bollywood

To raise funds for team expenses, Kahaani performs frequently around Santa Cruz, mostly for campus events. They have participated in college nights, including a Slug Pride celebration held at Cowell College, and at the UC Santa Cruz Quarry Amphitheater groundbreaking ceremony in November.

Aside from their many other tasks, the co-captains are the troupe’s choreographers, a skill that comes naturally for them.

“When I listen to songs, I don’t listen to the music,”  Krishnakumar said. “I automatically choreograph in my head.”

The two co-captains say they owe their technical prowess to their upbringing. Watching Bollywood films at an early age and getting encouragement to pursue the dance style as a hobby has given them a lexicon of steps, a way to convey meaning through dance.

Growing up with an interest in Bollywood dance is something many of the team members share.

“As a child I started doing dances with my cousin,” said Anuja Patel (College Nine ‘19, philosophy and global economics). “We’d perform at birthdays and other family gatherings.” Patel has also had training in garba, a type of folk dance, and classical Indian dance.

Practice makes perfect

Krishnakumar’s goal for the February competition is to have practiced the routine so much that the performance will become a matter of instinct. Once she is fully prepared, the steps will happen automatically as she hears the music. If she thinks about anything while she performs, she wants be aware of the fun she is having.

For the next month, the team will practice from 9 p.m. until midnight three to four times a week to prepare for Bollywood Berkeley. These practices are grueling, but worth it.

Krishnakumar’s aggressive practice schedule, on top of her full course load in molecular, cell, and developmental biology requires dedication to the sport and upholding a commitment to her teammates.

“We’re doing this to do our best,” she says. “And we’re doing it for the people on the team.”