Bhangra in the Burgh kicks up the beat

For the 12th year in a row, the Bhangra in the Burgh competition took place at Soldiers and Sailors. Pitt’s own team, First Class Bhangra, took home the first-prize trophy at Saturday’s event.


Anna Bongardino | Visual Editor

Eight competitive teams and five exhibition teams performed at Bhangra in the Burgh in Soldiers and Sailors Saturday night.

By Maya Best, For The Pitt News

Pitt students cheered and waved Pittsburgh flags as First Class Bhangra members danced under a dimmed glow that quickly transitioned into strobe lights illuminating the bright array of colors on their clothing. The auditorium at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall was filled with energy on Saturday as part of the 2018 Bhangra in the Burgh dance competition.

Crowds gathered for the 12th Bhangra in the Burgh, an annual nonprofit nationwide Bhangra dance competition. This year’s ticket proceeds went to the creative and expressive arts therapy program at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. Bhangra is a traditional folk dance from Punjab, the northern region of India, known for brightly colored traditional clothing, upbeat music and fast-paced, energetic moves.

Eight teams performed before judges to compete for a $2,500 cash prize and trophy. The competing teams included the Toronto All-Star Girls, Da Real Punjabiz from California, Cornell Bhangra, Illini Bhangra from Illinois, Furteelay Shokeen from Detroit, Capital Bhangra from Washington, D.C., Pitt’s team First Class Bhangra and Michigan Bhangra Team.

The individual dancers wore different colored clothing, ranging from bright oranges to dark purples with gold embellishments. Performers danced holding sapp — a wooden instrument with many x-shaped small parts that is played by expanding and collapsing like an accordion — to produce a loud clapping sound. The teams showed off various tricks such as bending and throwing their khundas — long decorative hooked sticks. Capital Bhangra impressed the audience by dancing while holding the khundas in their mouths.

While Bhangra is traditionally a male dance, the Toronto All-Star Girls Bhangra team pushed the boundaries by showing what an all-female group can do. They started off the competition with a variety of Bhangra dance styles ranging from Punjabi folk to modern dance moves.  

Sophomore economics and pre-med student Aagmya Singh, the Pitt public relations representative for the Bhangra in the Burgh executive board, was particularly excited to see Pitt’s team perform.

“Last year second place was First Class Bhangra, Pitt and CMU’s team,” Singh said. “Maybe FCB will win [this year]. They’re pretty good.”

And they did. FCB is based at the University of Pittsburgh, but anyone in the City can join. It began in 2009 as a team of professional Bhangra dancers in Pittsburgh, but so many Pitt students were members that two years ago, it officially became affiliated with the University. The team won second place at last year’s Bhangra in the Burgh, and has competed around the country in Los Angeles, Houston and Washington, D.C.

Rishaan Sharma — a senior neuroscience and sociology major and one of the three FCB captains — has been on the team since his first year at Pitt, and has been dancing Bhangra since his childhood. In college he discovered the huge circuit of Bhangra teams competing across the country and how it differs from the traditional dance styles.

“Now it’s kind of transformed into something that I like to call an Indian sort of hip-hop where we incorporate a lot of Western elements, and a lot of rap and Western music,” Sharma said. “It’s kind of changed from something traditional to something more electric and fun.”

They were preparing for the past five months, practicing four times a week for three hours each in Posvar Hall. Many of FCB’s members came in with no prior dancing experience. The team works to encourage members to be interested not only in Bhangra dance, but also the Punjabi culture.

“Most of the people you’ll see dancing on stage actually didn’t have any experience before coming to college,” Sharma said. “But we really pride ourselves on getting the dancers not only interested in the dance but also the culture because the culture and the dance are really intertwined. So that’s how they get really passionate about it and that’s how they get better.”

Carnegie Mellon University students Manav Anand and Japkirat Pannun were the emcees for the evening. The pair introduced the performing acts with humorous comments and inside jokes with specific references to Indian culture, such as calling out to the Indian “aunties” in the audience and describing arranged marriage as a vetted version of Tinder.

Both Anand and Pannun had danced for their university’s team CMU Bhangra in their freshman year but had to leave after the first semester to pursue other commitments. They referenced their own short-lived “attempt” at Bhangra in their jokes. Anand — a junior finance and statistics major at Carnegie Mellon University — was especially impressed by FCB’s performance this year and thought their award was well deserved.

“Their performance was amazing,” Anand said. “When they threw the khundas across the stage, that was so cool. I’ve never seen anything like that. The amount of detail they paid attention to was out of this world.”

Several exhibition teams performed between the competitors to complement the competition dancers. Pitt Avaaz — an a cappella group that sings Hindi, English, and Spanish mashups — performed two songs, mixing American and Hindi pop songs. Local dance troupe CMU  Sahara showed off their Bollywood fusion dance moves. School-aged girls from the Nandinik Dance Academy performed Indian classical dance to a Carnatic mix of Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You.”

It was sophomore natural sciences major Pallavi Muluk’s third time going to Bhangra in the Burgh. As a Pittsburgh native, she was excited to be able to enjoy the performance as a Pitt student this year.

“One of my friends is on FCB so I came to support him,” Muluk said. “It’s really cool that now that I go to Pitt I know some of the team members a lot better. It’s a really cool way to show off Indian culture.”