A Culture Of Dance: Garba

I recently attended a nine-day festival called Navaratri, which, according to Wikipedia is, “Indian dance forms that originated in the state of Gujarat.” The one I went to was held at a Hindu cultural center about 30 minutes from my apartment. I attended with my Gujarati friend, whose parents came to the United States from India, and she had extra Chaniya cholis (the traditional garb worn for garba) to dress me in. Now I want you to picture a crowded room full of Indian people who are excited to be there and talking in Hindi or Gujarati, and then there is me—the 6-foot tall, very white girl with a on her forehead. I stuck out like a sore thumb, which is not a situation that I am fond of.

As a general rule, I do not dance. Like I recently became comfortable with some car boogying and that was huge for me. I attribute my long-standing antipathy to always being taller (and thanks to rapid growth spurts, always clumsier), and an unfortunate comment at a sixth grade dance where a “friend” told me I danced like Squidward. Combine that with my very conservative, Baptist upbringing and my self-esteem existing in the negatives, and you have a girl who did not go to homecomings, proms, bars, clubs, or anything like that. So this whole foreign dancing was a terrifying prospect, and my friend was kind enough to send me YouTube videos ahead of time that showed some of the basic steps. But nothing could have prepared me for being in a room with, literally, hundreds of other people who knew exactly what they were doing.

I trucked along during the first round with the basic two-clap step, while my friend quickly moved into a more complicated step as the music became faster and faster. But during the next round my competitive nature started to peek out, and I decided to give it my best shot at sticking with my friend’s more complicated steps.  And do you know what I discovered? I discovered that when I am able to put aside my constant fear that everyone is staring at me, and instead just try my best and have fun, I LOVE to dance, and I’m actually pretty good at it. It was an astounding revelation!  Some of the more traditional adults seemed a little taken aback at first that I was engaging so wholeheartedly, and I just grinned at them as I whirled past, and I like to think that by the end of my fifth day they had kind of adopted me.

Another aspect of the environment that I think was instrumental in helping me feel comfortable enough to engage in garba, was that every single person there was dancing—the elderly men and women, the fashionable young women and gallivanting young men, and even children. I found myself wondering what it must be like to grow up going to classes to learn a culture’s traditional dance, and where the movements are a beautiful celebration of religion, life, and the past, present, and future.

I think too often our generation’s typical dance style is hyper-sexualized and carries a heavy expectation of performance and appearance—which frankly, scares the tar out of me. What I perceive as normal (which I freely admit might not be reality) is that I am expected to go to a bar or club and gyrate with, or grind on, people I don’t know. It’s smoky, crowded, laced with booze, and dirty—and therefore, I hastily say no thank you. I like control, and the sheer amount of unknowns presented in those situations is overwhelming, and makes me want to become a hermit. So you can see how garba was so completely different than what I know, and through it I became freer and therefore, it was nothing short of a revolutionary experience. What I learned from that experience could be generalized to other situations where I might be expected to dance; or even allow me to feel more comfortable with jumping around in the privacy of my apartment.

I don’t really have a great load of advice for those out there who want to learn how to be more comfortable dancing. And I really don’t have any advice for how to look marvelous and graceful whilst learning how to dance, because that will never ever be me. I searched on Wikihow on how to dance, and it was slightly helpful, if that. Zumba can be a fun option, or it can make you cry (like it did me the first time) because it’s going too fast and I couldn’t figure out the steps and the hand movement coordination. For the record, I did go back and conquer a Zumba class and felt freaking awesome afterwards. So that’s the only advice I have: experiment. Experiment dancing in your home alone. Experiment dancing in the company of those who will not judge you for expressing your style in your own way.  Experiment with different dance cultures. Experiment and eventually you will be a free.

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Have you ever tried garba? Tweet us @litdarling.

*Edited to note that the image featured above is Bhangra dancing not Garba*

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