There has never been an all women’s bhangra competition in the United States. That’s changing this summer, with the first all-women’s competition ever to be held this August in Washington, D.C. — Raniyaan di Raunaq.
Competitive bhangra, which started as an expression of homeland Punjabi culture, has become its own subculture, with competition norms, online forums, and academies dedicated to honing the skills of the nation’s next top dancers. Many South Asian student groups on college campuses across the country center themselves around dance, with bhangra teams and school-wide performances bringing wider communities to South Asian cultural events. With the development of this subculture, tradition has been selectively applied.
One tradition that remains largely intact is the masculine lens through which the dance as a whole is performed, adapted, and judged.
D.C. Bhangra Crew (DCBC), an all-women’s group that has been around in the D.C. area for about a decade, is hosting Raniyaan di Raunaq, the U.S.’s first all-women’s bhangra competition, this August. It will welcome “any and all dancers identifying as women, trans, nonbinary, or who are from similarly marginalized communities,” according to the competition’s site.
With a new competition, this small group of women is breaking ground and carving out space for a community of dancers, subverting norms that have been ingrained from the beginning of competitive bhangra practice.
“We want to get away from the idea that bhangra has to look like any one thing,” Director of Operations Saranga Arora told Kajal. “We are inviting people to interpret and share what they want, while still respecting tradition and culture.”
DCBC’s leaders are helping women in the circuit do more than conform to male standards; they are setting their own standards that celebrate varied forms, from traditionally masculine to feminine and everything in between. As women who have benefited uniquely from this all-female, South Asian community, they want others to feel what they have felt dancing on stage with one another. They want to give young women the option, the flexibility, and the space to perform in the ways they find most powerful.
“It’s about choosing,” Creative Director Asha Thanki said. “If we got to choose the luxury of being on an all-women’s team with a 10-year history, why can’t we be purposeful about opening that door for other people?”
As an all-women’s team, DCBC has faced its fair share of bias in the circuit. Team members have been told they are not feminine enough, dancing with too much power and not enough grace. They have been told that their weakness lies in never having the power or energy of all-male teams, just because physically on stage they do not take up the same amount of space as men. They’ve been told that as an all-female team, they will always be “middle of the road.” But rather than focusing in on their negative experiences in the bhangra circuit, the leaders in DCBC want to celebrate the women in the circuit who have faced these same frustrations and whose unique talents have been overlooked by the mainstream circuit conventions.
Team members have been told they are not feminine enough, dancing with too much power and not enough grace. They have been told that their weakness lies in never having the power or energy of all-male teams.
DCBC’s dedication to uplifting women’s unique talents shines through at every level of Raunaq’s planning and organization. Every member of the planning committee is contributing in ways that are uniquely tied to their skillset and careers, with judging coordinated by Navneet Pandher who has experience performing, teaching, and judging bhangra, sustainability organized by Tasneem Islam whose career focuses on environmental advocacy, and creative direction by Asha Thanki, who has experience in communications and is going on to pursue her MFA in fiction, to name a few. This attention to detail is seen in all that they do, from rethinking bhangra mixers to streamlining the dancers’ experiences during the actual competition.
“We have over eighty years of collective bhangra experience, and you have people who are saying, look, just from an organizing perspective, regardless of who your audience is, we can do better,” Hospitality & Sponsorship Co-Chair Saniya Suri said. “Our dancers deserve better, so let’s do better by them.”
At the end of the day, all the planning, advertising, and innovation comes back to the desire for these women to share more broadly an experience that has been defining for them — dancing on stage with women they love. The women of DCBC are one another’s support system, role models, and teammates, working towards not just clean choreography but also uplifting communities. For each of them, dancing together goes beyond the set details and individual dance moves and into their relationships with one another and with their team as a whole.
When asked about meaningful experiences they’ve had with each other, the same theme arises over and over: these women show up. They tell me about frantically replacing a dancer last minute, and one teammate showing up just days before to learn all the choreography perfectly. They repeat the story of how the team almost had to disband, but for the leadership of a few dedicated dancers who put in the time to recruit and train a new generation of women.
These women show up. They show up for one another and for their communities. This August, they’ll be showing up for the entire bhangra community.
Donations for Raniyaan di Raunaq can be contributed at their GoFundMe page.