An empty school gymnasium assumes an electrifying ambience when filled with hundreds of young students moving together in something resembling unison while high-tempo Indian pop music pulses throughout the space.
Such an effect was generated numerous times April 4 and 5 when the Heights Elementary School, Gearhart Elementary School and Broadway Middle School received a unique visit from Bollywood Dreams Entertainment and its entourage of professional dancers.
Prashant Kakad, founder of the Portland-based company, and dancers Brittany Newton — who hails from Seaside — and Elliot Miller spent hours teaching more than 1,000 students in kindergarten through eighth grade a dance routine. The students then demonstrated their routines during a community Bollywood Dance Night, put on at Seaside High School the evening of April 5.
“This is really unique because (the students) get to learn the dances, but then they have an opportunity to come together and be part of the community and dance and perform and show their family and friends what they learned,” Kakad said.
His company primarily focuses on hosting dance parties in major cities throughout the United States, leading workshops, working private events, and offering weekly dance classes in Portland. They also produce original music, along with remixes and mashups. Bringing Bollywood dance and music to educational institutions is an uncommon, yet meaningful experience for Kakad and his team.
Dancing in groups during weddings, festivals or other events is an important part of Indian culture, but far from prevalent in the Pacific Northwest.
“Here in our culture, we’re not touching each other very often, we’re not moving our bodies together very often,” said Mary Bess Gloria, the local naturopathic doctor and artist who orchestrated the Bollywood experience for Seaside students. “So much of what these children are doing is sitting still and having to fight their innate urges to move and fidget.”
As such, she sees dancing and movement as an instrument to address violence in schools, which she believes stems from “the isolation people feel.”
“To me, dance is a way to bring people together that doesn’t involve words or ideology,” she said. “They can connect on a different level. And once we connect to someone, we’re much less likely to want to hurt that person.”
In the fall, she pitched the idea of hosting Bollywood dance workshops for students and a public dance party to the parent-teacher organizations at the elementary schools and middle school. Students and their families work hard fundraising for the PTOs, and this seemed like a way “to give back to them,” Gloria said.
The party included not only music and dancing, but also a photo booth, funded by Bruce’s Candy Kitchen; curry-flavored popcorn; and temporary henna tattoos. Everything was free to the public.
The dance instructors themselves had several meaningful experiences throughout their two-day stint at the schools, such as introducing hundreds of students to an unfamiliar style of dance and music — including Indian hip-hop — and seeing their positive response to the exposure.
“There is something to this music — it’s very infectious and joyful,” Kakad said. “It just inspires me to see people get into it.”
For Newton, the experience was a homecoming of sorts. She attended elementary, middle and high school in Seaside and both danced with and instructed at Encore Dance Studio.
“It’s such a treat to be able to give back to any community and do this, but especially my community that I grew up in,” she said, adding her work as a professional dancer can also demonstrate to students what’s possible: “You can do whatever you want, you can follow your dreams, and you can give back.”