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We are Masti
A semester with Boston College’s Bollywood fusion dance team
One, two. Pretend you’re plucking an apple from the highest branch with your left hand, lift your left leg, and slam your elbow toward your knee. Then switch, right hand, right knee,” Aash Shrivastav ’16 said as she demonstrated before a dozen students on the second night of tryouts for Masti, Boston College’s Bollywood fusion dance troupe.
“Three, four, five, six. Up-down-ups.” In rapid succession, Shrivastav snaked her left arm to her right side, created a scissor motion with both arms, froze, and hammered her left elbow back to her left side. Meanwhile, her feet bounced in intricate and breakneck patterns of their own and she maintained a beaming thousand-watt smile. The prospects watched, bewildered. “Now you try.”
These were among the most basic moves last year’s group had set to “Mashallah,” an up-tempo number from the 2012 Hindi-English romantic thriller Ek Tha Tiger (“And there was a tiger”)—the simplest of 10 routines Shrivastav and her three fellow captains had designed as Masti’s entry in the 2015 AHANA Leadership Council Showdown last April.
Since the Showdown’s founding in 2002 as an annual spring event, the University’s student dance groups have spent the better part of two semesters preparing for the competition, the summit of student-led dance performance at Boston College. In mid-February, some 20 troupes on record with the Office of Student Involvement will perform before a board of the Undergraduate Government of Boston College, which runs the event. Fourteen finalists will be selected, with eight weeks remaining to hone their six-to-eight-minute stage shows. Then, before a sellout crowd of 3,500 in Conte Forum and a panel of professional choreographers and dancers, they will compete for a three-tiered green-and-gold trophy topped with a gold, star-emblazoned chalice; a $500 donation to the charity of their choice; and bragging rights for a year. The judges award two trophies, one to an independent dance team, which could include recent competitors such as the Latin crew Fuego del Corazón, the hip-hop troupes Synergy and Phaymus, and the all-female FISTS (Females Incorporating Sisterhood Through Step). The other goes to a team affiliated with a student culture club and is assessed on the quality of both the dance and the depiction of a culture. Last year, Masti beat out finalists PATU (Presenting Africa to You); AEROdynamiK, the Korean Students Association’s hip-hop crew; and Latin dance team Vida de Intensa Pasión for first place in the culture category.
Formed in 2004, Masti is the dance team of the South Asian Student Association (SASA), which draws students of primarily Indian, Bangladeshi, Nepalese, Pakistani, and Sri Lankan origins and currently has 75 members. But the troupe is open to anyone interested in “de-stressing and having fun through dance,” says Shrivastav, and roughly a third of its members have come from beyond SASA’s loosely defined borders. Throughout the year, Masti performs at collegiate Indian dance showcases across New England (in which the other teams’ compositions are often similarly mixed). The troupe also choreographs the dancing for SASA’s annual two-hour culture show held in Robsham Theater each February. Past culture show themes include “My Big Fat Indian Wedding” (2015) and “100 Years of Bollywood” (2014). For the latter, Masti highlighted popular Bollywood dance styles through the decades, from the 1950s to the present.
From September to April, however, Showdown is Masti’s primary focus. And with its fusion of flowing South Asian hand motions and jerky hip-hop steps, shape-shifting group formations, thunderous stomps, buoyant leaps, flips, and other acrobatics, the troupe has won Showdown’s culture category in 2007, 2009, 2011, 2014, and 2015. This year the team is vying for an unprecedented three-peat. In the days after its 2015 victory last April, dozens of spectators, enchanted by Masti’s routines, approached the captains and pledged to audition in the fall. Surely, Shrivastav thought, after consecutive titles Masti would no longer hear students say, “I didn’t know white people could join.”
This year’s mid-September tryouts were held over two nights in a carpeted conference room in McElroy Commons with large, reflective windows in which dancers could check themselves. While some dance groups drew as many as 60 aspirants, 24 students tried out for Masti. Most had never danced competitively, let alone heard of kathak and b-nat (short for bharatanatyam), the two traditional Indian dance forms Masti draws from most often. Kathak developed in ancient Northern Indian temples as a way of telling stories from Hindu scriptures with flowing, convoluted hand and arm gestures. B-nat originated in southern India and is characterized by squat stances and swaying shoulders, with the feet beating counter to the rhythm. Over the two hours, a couple of female candidates trained in ballet picked up most of the moves, if at half speed, while the rest stuttered, stumbled, and accidentally entangled arms.
“No experience necessary. We’ll teach you everything!” encouraged Shrivastav. An economics and theology major intent on law school, her accent is a calming mix of Indian (from her family, expats living in Dubai) and British (from her education at Dubai College, an English-language secondary school).
The troupe came into the fall with just five members, having lost nine regulars to graduation and attrition. Three of the four captains were classically trained in Indian dance from early childhood. Shrivastav’s parents enrolled her in kathak classes when she was two, as a way for her to grow up “grounded in my Indian and Hindu heritage.” Fellow captain and education student Ashruti Patel ’17 had taken classes in b-nat in New Hampshire, starting at the age of six, and had picked up garba at family parties. In garba (Sanskrit for “womb”), a tradition in India’s western state of Gujarat bordering Pakistan and the Arabian Sea, rings of dancers encircle a clay lantern representing the womb of the Hindu mother goddess, Durga. Patel joined Masti soon after transferring from the University of Connecticut in 2014, partly to “get closer to the Indian community” at Boston College. Captain Geeta Shanbhag ’18, a psychology major from Clarksville, Maryland, danced mostly at home throughout her childhood; it was “a way for my family to bond.” And captain Ari Ratnaseelan ’16, a psychology major from Northborough, Massachusetts, remembers the day Indian dance captured her imagination, when she was five. Watching a family-friend’s arangetram (the word is Tamil for a debut solo performance after years of training), she sat in her seat trying to imitate the head movements and curling hand gestures. They were “transfixing,” she says. “I couldn’t take my eyes away.” Soon after, she began taking b-nat classes, which her mother had taught in her native Sri Lanka, and performed her own arangetram as a senior in high school. When deciding which university to attend, she watched YouTube videos of collegiate Indian dance troupes. Whereas others focused on one style, Masti’s fusion—of Bollywood and street dance and forms of movement from across the Indian subcontinent—won her over.
According to Shrivastav, Masti “pack[s] as much Indian culture in each performance as possible. . . . There’s a lot of kathak hands mixed with garba feet and garba hands mixed with bhangra feet.” (The ebullient bhangra developed in the northern Punjab region in the mid-20th century and demands many raised arms and leaping, spinning kicks.) From all these elements and more, and with a new batch of members, the captains would attempt to build another championship team. They were hoping for talent, but mainly they were looking for effort and energy. Who smiled as they shimmied their shoulders? Who laughed at themselves when they faltered? Ultimately, said Shrivastav, “We’re looking for a willingness to have fun—‘Masti’ means ‘fun’ in Hindi”—and a willingness to persevere on the journey to Showdown.
The newcomers included three who were not South-Asian, among them freshman biology major Alyssa Craparotta, who came to campus from Long Island, where she had South Asian friends who got her interested in yoga, Buddhism, and Bollywood. She had never danced before, but as a former gymnast and cheerleader, and standing 5’0”, the captains anointed her as the acrobat. Nursing student Maddy Chin ’16 knew she had minimal free time going into her senior year as president of the hip-hop dance crew UPrising. But she says she was swept up watching Masti’s ability to “draw an energy out of people.” She will help Masti choreograph all things popping, locking, and breaking. Shrivastav recruited her boyfriend, Ram Arivudainambi ’16, a premed student from Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, for his athleticism, to expand Masti’s repertoire of leaps and lifts. Another addition was Soumya Parashar ’19, of Pittsburgh, who moved to America from India when she was three and who tried out in part to improve skills “very important to my culture.”
One month later and newly regrouped, Masti was about to perform for the first time. They were 10 dancers in all, counting the five returnees (one new member, a sophomore, had already quit, owing to the press of other commitments). They gathered on Thursday, October 15, at 9:00 p.m. in a McGuinn Hall conference room overlooking Alumni Stadium; in the distance could be seen the familiar Hancock and Prudential towers. The members cleared the furniture from the floor. The next night they would be helping to mark the close of Boston College’s Hispanic Heritage Month celebration, with five other dance teams. And the night after that they would be at Harvard University. Since 2011, Masti has taken part in Harvard’s annual intercollegiate South Asian dance showcase, Raunak (“illumination” in Hindi), alongside Columbia University’s Raas, Tufts University’s Bhangra, MIT’s Natya, Yale’s Rangeela, and others.
In rehearsal garb—a range of floral yoga pants, maroon-and-gold shorts, purple leg warmers, concert T-shirts, hoodies, and headbands—the dancers stretched while Shrivastav plugged her smartphone into the surround-sound system.
With a stammer of notes on the pungi (a nasal-sounding wind instrument), the melody to “Mashallah” started, and the dancers hurried into position. After 10 rehearsals, the newcomers had begun to blend in. Arms swung overhead in sync, hips swiveled with verve, as the group’s formation, which began as two squares, morphed into a sharp V. One minute in, the music of “Mashallah” transitioned to the thumping electronica of “Get Low,” a 2014 hit by the American Dillon Francis and Frenchman DJ Snake. Masti typically works at least one Western top 40 song into each performance, and “Get Low” is inflected with a North African folk melody. The captains shouted instructions (“Explode right,” “Eyes ahead,” “Attack the center!”) as they spun and executed ornate mudras (hand gestures). A female empowerment ballad in Hindi followed, from the Bollywood action film Dhoom 3 (2013), shot in Chicago, Switzerland, and Mumbai. Near the end, two dancers lifted Craparotta and launched her into a flip over a cluster of four dancers standing at full height in front of her.
Much of the fall semester each year is devoted to teaching portions of the previous year’s Showdown routine, so the newcomers can master basic hand gestures, footwork, and formations. With each song, the captains spend time translating and explaining the lyrics. “If you don’t understand every word you dance to, it will show that you’re not believing it,” says Shrivastav. “It’s also important for those who don’t speak Hindi to be aware of what they’re representing in Masti.” As they work through kinks in the choreography, the group get stuck in the final duet move of the Bollywood number “Marjaani.” The song is from the 2009 film Billu (“Barber”), about the friendship of a poor barber and a pop superstar. The chorus ends with the line, Oye khasma nu khaye marjaani, Hindi for “Let the world go to hell and die.” “It’s about a couple that’s so in love they’re declaring, if society thinks poorly of us, society can go to hell,” Shrivastav explained. The dancers needed a two-count maneuver that conveyed the sentiment. So they broke into pairs and experimented.
Arivudainambi tried Shrivastav’s original choreography: throwing his partner, freshman Soumya Parashar, into an airborne cartwheel and catching her—as her legs smacked the hanging conference room lights.
“Let’s not do that one again,” Parashar said.
Shrivastav grabbed fellow captain and junior Ashruti Patel by her hands and tried sliding, feet first, between her legs. She only pulled Patel to the ground with her.
“You’re a monster!” Patel cried in mock agony. Most of the group keeled over in laughter.
Masti spends much of the first semester “becoming a family,” Patel said later. They often watch Bollywood films together on weekends, and close most practices with a “circle time,” when they share one another’s highs and lows since they last met (one practice in Stokes Hall ended so late the lights went out, and they spent two hours talking in the dark). In interviews, each troupe member, even the first-years, referred to Masti as a family more often than a team. Chin described the captains: “Aash [Shrivastav] is the mom, always so warm, happy, and joking around. But Ashruti [Patel] is the goofball,” always teasing Shrivastav for saying “anticlockwise” instead of “counterclockwise.” “Geeta [Shanbhag] is the quirky one. And Ari [Ratnaseelan] is so quiet, but she’s the one who really sees everything.” Bonding early is important, says Arivudainambi, “so that you’re not completely miserable next semester,” when Masti will ratchet up from two practices a week to five or six, sometimes going until three in the morning.
In the spring, the captains will teach classical Indian mudras such as the alapadma (“fully bloomed lotus”) and tripataaka (“three parts of the flag”)—both involve outstretched fingers and curled thumbs—and b-nat neck movements including sundari (side-to-side) and prarivartita (semicircular). But in the fall they focus on easier-to-grasp moves that mix Bollywood with hip-hop. Dancers name these as they go: the “teddy bear swing,” the “koala climb,” the “apple toss,” and “Pavel’s explosion,” named after third-year member Pavel Gorelov ’16. An international studies and political science major from Warwick, New York, Gorelov took took ballet as a child during a family stay in Russia; he joined the hip-hop crew UPrising his freshman year, and tried out for Masti after watching members dance bhangra to a Punjabi song at a friend’s dorm party in 2013.
Someone proposed the teddy bear swing for the “Marjaani” duet. Demonstrating, Shrivastav bounded into the arms of Patel, who squatted to set Shrivastav on her right knee then stood upright and swung Shrivastav to her left knee, and up again, to land Shrivastav in front of her. It wasn’t a classical move, but it could work.
The five pairs practiced half a dozen times. “I can’t catch Alyssa without falling,” said Shanbhag.
“Sure you can,” said Gorelov. He grabbed a chair, and asked Shanbhag to sit.
“Lean forward, and hold your position,” he said. Gorelov pulled the chair from under her, and Shanbhag remained crouched. “This will give your thighs the support they need.” By the sixth try, Craparotta swung freely and landed securely on each leg. The teddy bear swing remained in the routine.
When they ran through “Marjaani” with the music, Shrivastav spotted more trouble: “You all need to focus on smiling.”
There are six gradations of a Bollywood smile, starting with the smita, a close-mouthed half smirk. To ensure that even the back row of the audience can see, Shrivastav advocates the most extreme, the atihasita, the kind of smile a four-year-old gives a Sears portrait photographer after he squeaks a bunny beside the camera. “By the end [of the program] your jaw is dead. Especially as you’re huffing and puffing through your smile,” says Ratnaseelan. The smile is one of the last skills new dancers acquire. It doesn’t come naturally when you’re scrambling your feet to the blistering bhangra beats and contorting each finger in a precise mudra position. “But our energy and happiness is one of the things that sets us apart,” says Shrivastav. The hip-hop teams typically maintain a tough, intimidating countenance, ballerinas are poised, serene. “We look like we’re having the best time of our lives on stage. Hopefully we can get to the point again this year where that’s true.”
Just before midnight, drenched in sweat, they hugged each other and flicked off the lights.
The captains studied video from Masti’s Harvard performance dozens of times and found something to polish in almost every count. The stomping in “Get Low” looked timid. “You need to slam down at 150 percent, because it will only look like 90 percent in the audience,” said Patel. They let go of a male freshman who struggled to keep up, but encouraged him to audition again next year. This brought the female–male ratio to seven to two. Meanwhile, the group continued to improve.
On December 5, Masti suited up for its last show of the semester, the concluding evening of Boston College’s Week of Dance, sponsored by the Arts Council. This was a new event for the campus: six days of workshops and showcases run by and featuring student troupes. Masti would close out Act One, and, while the members waited to take the Robsham Theater stage, they sat in a circle in the adjacent black-box Bonn Studio. The studio was crammed with more than 170 dancers from 11 troupes—from the Irish Step Team in sparkling gold frilly dresses to Full Swing, with women in twirling black skirts and men in suspenders. The Masti women wore white long-sleeve leotards and billowing sky-blue skirts with traditional silver-chain kamarband belts that would jingle when they danced; Arivudainambi wore a knee-length, silver silk sherwani and black harem pants. (Gorelov, the other male, and Chin were in Boston with UPrising, at a hip-hop dance competition.)
When Masti saw Vida de Intensa Pasión come on stage, via live broadcast on a flat-screen TV in the Bonn, they started to stretch. Two acts later, they walked down the hall, stopped before the door to backstage, and huddled tight.
“This is the last time we’re doing this routine,” said Shrivastav. “Go out there and kill it. You’re going to see how much you’ve grown since Harvard. We’ve all grown so much as a family. I love you all.”
They put their hands in and, so as not to distract the dancers onstage, whispered Masti’s chant: “When we walk through the door / one thing is clear / everybody knows that Masti is here! Who are we? / Masti!” Then they walked through the door, congratulating the On Tap dancers as they ran by. Masti was loose, buoyantly making faces at one another backstage from opposite ends as they prepared to enter stage-left and stage-right.
The announcer bellowed, “Give it up for Masti!” “Mashallah” started, a dawn-colored light flooded the backdrop, and the troupe bounded onto the stage, looking strong and confident. Craparotta’s front-flip sparked howls from the near-full house. The teddy bear swings had velocity. Even the rookies beamed with full atihasita smiles, which they kept when the stage lights went down and they ran off stage.
Vebhav Garg ’15, who performed in Showdown 2015 and is now earning a master’s degree in physiology at Georgetown University, had snuck backstage to watch. “You’re ready to take it to the next level,” he told the dancers as they mopped their sweat.
In a meeting two days later, the captains stressed the uphill ahead. Craparotta, Parashar, Chin, and Arivudainambi had developed into agile Bollywood dancers. But they needed to learn many more mudras and polish their timing. And, down to nine members, it was essential that Masti have success recruiting (men, especially) at SASA’s culture show in February, to have a team capable of a range of formations and flips.
“But much more than a competition, for me Showdown is a celebration,” said Shrivastav. Explaining why she’s devoted some 25 hours a week to Masti for the past four years, Shrivastav paraphrased lines from the penultimate scene of the 2007 Bollywood blockbuster Chak De! India (Let’s Go, India), in which the coach of the Indian women’s national field-hockey team gives a speech in the locker room before the players must face Australia in the World Cup final: “I dance first for my team, for Masti. Then I dance to represent Indian culture. And then, if I have any energy left, I dance for myself.”
There are 27 intercultural clubs registered with the Office of Student Involvement. Some, such as the Korean Students Association and African Student Organization, regularly field competitive dance troupes at the spring Showdown sponsored by the Undergraduate Government of Boston College. Others, including the Hawai’i Club and the Vietnamese Student Association, perform traditional dance more often as part of annual showcases. Throughout the year, intercultural clubs host events open to the entire student body, from the Slavic Club’s blini workshops to the Brazilian Club’s lessons in capoeira (a mixed martial art) to the Italian Club’s Free Gelato Day. The newest clubs—Taiwanese, Iranian, Dominican—all began in 2012. The birth dates of certain clubs are seemingly lost to history, but may (BCM hopes) reside in the memory of some alumni.
African Student Organization founded 1996; active members 12 ✦ Arab Students Association founded 2003; active members 25 ✦ Armenian Club founded circa 1979; active members 45 ✦ Black Student Forum founded 1970; active members 110 ✦ Brazilian Club founded circa 2005; active members 45 ✦ Cape Verdean Student Association founded 1996; active members 15 ✦ Caribbean Culture Club founded 1988; active members 231 (representing 20 countries) ✦ Chinese Students Association founded 1991; active members 200 ✦ Cuban-American Student Association founded 2003; active members 67 ✦ Dominican Association founded 2012; active members 13 ✦ German Academy founded: 1979; active members 25 ✦ Hawai’i Club founded 1991; active members 65 ✦ Hellenic Society founded 1982; active members 150 ✦ Il Circolo Italiano (Italian Club) founded 1976; active members 150 ✦ International Club founded 2009; active members 150 ✦ Iranian Culture Club founded 2012; active members 20 ✦ Irish Society founded circa 1983; active members 200 ✦ Japan Club founded 1990; active members 200 ✦ Korean Students Association founded 1991; active members 200 ✦ L’Association Haitienne founded 1999; active members 80 ✦ Organization of Latin American Affairs founded 1977; active members 100 ✦ Philippine Society founded 1991; active members 100 ✦ Slavic Club founded 1988; active members 30 (representing Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Belarus, Serbia, Croatia, Macedonia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Serbia) ✦ South Asian Student Association founded 1996; active members 75 (representing Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka) ✦ Southeast Asian Student Association founded 1995; active members 75 (representing Burma, Brunei, Cambodia, East Timor, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam) ✦ Taiwanese Cultural Organization founded 2012; active members 90 ✦ Vietnamese Student Association founded 1990; active members 152.
Read more by Zachary Jason