x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Chak de! dance

Saloon An afternoon of Bollywood movement in Dubai.

An afternoon of Bollywood movement in Dubai. For many Indians around the world, the closing credit sequence of Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire - which featured a group dance number on a train platform - signalled a new high watermark in Bollywood's international advance. But there are plenty of other indications that Indian cinema's song-and-dance stylings have lodged themselves firmly in global culture. At one Dubai fitness club, expatriates from India, Mexico, New Zealand, Lebanon and the UK take part in a regular Bollywood dance class - taught by a Filipino instructor.

One recent afternoon at the BurJuman centre's branch of the Fitness First health club, the teacher, named Joseph, struts into the studio, waves and blows two kisses to the assembled class of 20. Wearing a bright red sleeveless T-shirt and gym pants, he straps a wireless microphone to the waistband of his shorts and then jacks his BlackBerry into the studio's audio system. "Where's the other half of the class?" he asks in a high-pitched voice, scanning his smaller-than-usual group for the day. "OK. No problem. We'll make up with double the energy." Then he claps twice and walks up to his position between a mirrored wall and three rows of students.

Bollywood dance studios and lessons gained popularity in India in the mid-1990s, and in recent years they have mushroomed across major cities around the world. The studios are mainly supported by members of the 22 million strong Indian diaspora, who remain fond of the dance form that has evolved into an all but obligatory component of commercial Indian cinema. Beyond the screen, Bollywood dance has become an integral part of many modern Indian weddings - and is now making inroads into the health and fitness industry. "To me, this is Bollywood coming of age," says Tina Patel, an Indian in the Dubai class.

Before turning on the music, Joseph runs through the day's first series of dance steps. "One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight," he says clapping on "four" and "eight." With each count, Joseph twists his waist, wriggles his hips, shuffles his feet, flails his arms or turns his neck - occasionally all at once. The class obediently (but sometimes clumsily) follows his movements, with sheepish smiles exchanged from one row to the next.

Three minutes into the session, the only two men in the class shrug their shoulders in frustration at their inability to co-ordinate their feet, hips and neck. Joseph repeats the motions and then begins another eight-beat set of movements, including the popular Bollywood gesture of leaning the body backwards while raising the arms upwards, as the hands mime the action of screwing on an light bulb in mid-air.

Julie, a New Zealander, smiles in recognition of the "light-bulb". Joseph spots her reaction through the mirror and encourages her. "Come on," he says. Then he skips back to his BlackBerry to cue up the music. "In Dubai it's hard to avoid Bollywood," says Julie, who has become familiar with the industry's most popular celebrities - Shahrukh Khan and Aishwarya Rai. "A friend of mine took this class and he recommended it to me. It's not as intense as other group exercises, but I'll probably be back. It's loads of fun," she says. A track from the film Aloo Chaat, released in March, starts off with five seconds of Spanish guitar, then gives way to thumping beats that fuse elements of hip-hop, gangsta rap and Punjabi bhangra, setting the pace for the rest of the session. The class moves with Joseph, following the choreography they have just learnt. Soon a man's voice starts singing in Hindi on the track: "Now let's party together, let's cash in this wealth of love."

Shahnaz, an Indian women from Mumbai, laughs at the lyrics with her friend Divya Nair, who has come along as a bystander. "Personally I'm not a fan of the modern style of Bollywood dance," says Nair, referring to the pelvic-pushing, belly-shaking and chest-thrusting that is now prevalent in the industry's song and dance formats. Joseph, too, says he enjoys the old-school forms of Bollywood dance that incorporate more classical elements and are less influenced by the western-style MTV music videos. "I love working with the facial expressions to express love and heart-break. It's so graceful," he says. "But the men in my class cannot work with those movements. So we have to adapt to the fast style."

Although Bollywood Dance sessions are now only offered at Fitness First branches in districts where there are large Indian populations, Joseph is convinced they will spread out across other locations in Dubai. He cites the huge response to a "Bollywood Dance Idol" contest he recently organised at the BurJuman outlet. "We had 170 participants. They came with their families dressed up like in a movie. And the Filipino staff was dressed up in Indian clothes, and we presented a Bollywood number as well. Everyone loved it," he says. "I'm telling you, Bollywood dance is here to stay." Then he winds up the session with a wave and two air-kisses.

* Vinita Bharadwaj