Six people trickle into the room, a ballet-style studio with mirrors at the front and barres at the back, taking yoga mats from a side closet. There’s a chatty, nervous sort of camaraderie as the group--five women and one man--settles, the sort of calm people talk about before a storm, but with a blunted, hopeful kind of edge. Enter Angelica. Angelica Rose Scherp looks like a regular dance instructor, decked out in black leggings and a tank top, a lacy red scarf tied about her waist. After a quick hello she crosses to the stereo; a moment later, strong Bollywood techno beats rattle the floor and fast, barely accented English rushes into the space. Relaxing, the class slides into a warmup, arching into full camels and core work that makes me ache from my cozy seat on the sidelines. There’s something beautiful, even poetic about a Bollywood dance class. Despite the structure inherent in the dance, it’s full of freeing, blissful movement, and it’s clear the students love it. Nothing about the choreography is stereotypical--there are no jerky head-bobbles, no stilted semaphore. Most of all, though, it looks like fun. Earlier this month, I sat down with Angelica at a local cafe to talk about being an NRI, family, and her lifelong love of Bollywood.
Tell me about your family, and your background here?
Well, I came here to the US at the beginning of my high school. My parents immigrated, so, you know, I tagged along. [Laughs] A lot of my relatives are here, from my father’s side. From my mother’s side my relatives are still back there, and you know, we visit them every once in a while.
Did it make it easier having people here?
I think it was hard, ‘cause I mean the relatives were there but you don’t deal with them...you’re going to school and you’re dealing with your peers from school and after school and don’t really deal with your relatives. [You] kind of deal with the one person and the rest of the US.
You were in New Jersey. Was there a big Indian population at the time?
In New Jersey? Yes. Yes there was a big population. In fact when I was there, in New Jersey in the town of Teaneck, the mayor was Indian. Well, he was Pakistani but here those distinctions are not so contrasting like they are back in india. [Laughs] It all wears away...[we’re] more one than none.
What’s your family like?
My husband works at MIT and we have been in Massachusetts for the past 2 years, and like it very much. I have two kids. They’re both girls, 9 and 13. It’s been totally fine, even with my 13 year old, I guess partly because she’s into academics, so I haven’t run into too many problems except that she gets too much homework.
Are they interested in being Indian?
My kids are interested in being Indian but what it means to “be Indian” has changed for them over the years. They also have to deal with the fact that their mom is Indian and their dad is German American. When they were very little they didn’t really notice it and they were just yeah, of course, and my mom is darker than my dad. I remember we were in a restaurant and the kids were very little still and my older one then was maybe four and we were waiting for the food and she started playing around with the table settings and she’s like, “the pepper, that’s my mom, and the salt, that’s my dad.” They were really not aware, all the way they saw both cultures, and they didn’t think they’d have to pick one. [Shows me pictures of her kids, two gorgeous girls with shy smiles.] My kids would pass for white...I am very much darker than my kids. So of course, they’re wearing Indian clothes...and [they] went from always being aware that, you know who I was, that I was different but they didn’t really feel what that might mean but they’re starting to learn, just as they are learning what it means to be a girl, they are learning what it means to be Indian or biracial, as girls, they’re like, “yeah of course I’m a girl, there are no restrictions,” but as they’re growing up they’re seeing that people treat girls and boys different...it’s just a part of their learning. There are things that they absolutely find fascinating about India like the beautiful landscape, wildlife, of course music and dance, even Vedic math but there are things that they are getting aware of slowly like the caste system, religious violence which frankly scares them.
How did you begin dancing? Were you interested in other forms, or only Bollywood?
Well, I--I was always interested in dance, you know, and yes, Bollywood...though at that time it wasn’t even you know called Bollywood. We just called it filmy music or filmy dance.
Did you start out by dancing in front of the television, or by copying movies?
Actually how did I start out? I don’t remember that so much except putting the music on and ‘cause I wasn’t in a big city...I’m from a small place where, when I grew up, there wasn’t even electricity so, not in front of TV, but in front of the radio--somebody else’s radio at first.
Did you know what you were doing?
[Smiling, Angelica shakes her head.] We just sort of moved.
How did your interest in Bollywood dance translate into working as a professional dancer and teacher?
Well I, you know I took Kathak and some Bharata [Bharatnatayam, a classical Indian dance form) back in india. My parents--I don’t know if you’ve had that kind of indian parents--they’re like, “yeah, you can take any sort of academic class and I’ll pay tuition,” but they didn’t think dance was worthy of my time. They’re very professional, both men and women in my family work, so they kind of look down upon it somewhat, so I never really got formal training back then. Once I came here, you know, I became more free, I started working, I had my own money I wanted formal dance classes so I started taking whatever I could in my area.
Was it hard to find Indian dance classes back then?
Back then? [Laughs] Yes, yes, of course! I mean I was in New Jersey, [and] it was easier then...of course they were not Bollywood classes. You could find Bharatanatyam, that was the most common one...but then I moved to Santa Barbara and there was...the community associated with UC Santa Barbara but no Indian dance was available so I started taking the flamenco ‘cause I thought it was somewhat closer to Kathak with the footwork and the spinning--and it was--and there was a big belly dancing scene...so I started taking bellydance...and then people started approaching me and I was putting groups together for Diwali and Spring Festival...and my kids--I wanted to keep them involved, because these dance events kind of became the focus when people met and how they met and what we did. And so I started teaching Bollywood.
Do you find the film industry is making Bollywood dancing more popular now?
Now, yes I would say after a couple of these movies broke through - Slumdog, other films - yeah, there are a couple of movies people really like...it’s also timed politically ‘cause, you know, India kind of opened up and people became aware of the Indian culture. It happened simultaneously.
What’s the break down of your students? Do you have a lot of NRIs?
I have mostly non-Indian students. In Santa Barbara it was mostly Indian students. And a lot of times it is half and half...Right now I’m teaching at a bunch of places...and I expect most of the students to be white.
Is there a difference when you find yourself teaching NRIs vs. non-Indians?
I would say I don’t think there is a lot difference between my Indian and non-Indian students. Sometimes there are certain things that Indian women would be hesitant to try, women in general would be hesitant to try but especially Indian women. I’ll say, you’re going to do a chest circle [she demonstrates] and they’ll be ah, not doing that. Or just using the pelvis. I’ve had one instant when this one lady was like “I cannot dance to this song because it has a reference to the mythological figure of Ravana [a demon] and the woman [the singer] is sort of saying Ravana is okay and I cannot dance to it.” ...So she decided to skip that portion of the medley. It used to be different though, I remember when teaching non-Indians was much harder, it was very foreign to them. Indian movies were not popular because people didn’t have access to it or whatever. It was harder ‘cause they didn’t have any reference. Now they come in and they have a very good idea of what to expect and they’ve been kind of trying these movements on their own so it has become different.
What sort of people come to a Bollywood dance class?
Most of my students are women. There are men and at times I’ve been surprised when I have more men than women but they have been fewer times.??[Most] people have seen the movies and they have come and they really like Bollywood dancing and music so they come just for that, like, “oh I want to expose more to this.” These are usually [the] non-dancers. And there are dancers who are looking, who want a different style, who are looking for something different to what they have been dancing. Then others, [they want] some sort of dance some sort of exercise, and this sounded interesting. And you know I get those 3 kinds of categories repeatedly, in every class.
What’s it like going back to India for you now?
Hmm, you know, I think that has also changed, changed over the years as we’ve gone back...the last time I went I was kind of disappointed things have changed so fast, but I’ve also seen good and bad things. Society is more open, like in big cities there’s a big middle class but when I was a child I remember the infrastructure was in, you know, better condition. People were a lot more tolerant when I was little. Definitely a lot more tolerant.
Do you find the way people think about dance in India now has changed?
Yes, a lot more people are involved. I think it’s a lot more accessible and it’s encouraged more--a lot more--to the young kids and it wasn’t the case [before]...there [weren’t] any dance shows back then on television. ??[Now] there are lots of dance shows...I deal with a lot of parents who are NRIs who are living here and they want their kids to learn. It’s part of like, okay your kids here they do ballet or they do violin, and it just becomes sort of like you’ve got to know how to dance.
Do you think Bollywood has become more accessible in recent years?
The styles have changed--they’ve become so global. There’s so much hip hop and other styles that it is a lot more accessible worldwide...filmy dances used to be based a lot more on Bharatanatayam), Kathak, a lot of those classical dances and that was much harder. I mean stylistically--they were so stylized they weren’t really accessible to a world audience. Now it is kind of a mish mash of a lot of moves that makes it accessible for people all over ‘cause everybody is doing hip hop and everybody is aware of ballet. And even as a Bollywood choreographer it’s been hard for me [without] more ballet training, as I see merit in Ballet training and would like to include it as part of my training. I have a little bit because of my jazz and modern background but to just have ballet training would be important for me. However, when I see most sought after choreographers in Bollywood today I’m like, they are doing ballet, they are taking lessons in hip hop, they are incorporating all of these other forms. Maybe not now, but eventually it will be good to have more of all of these styles...I consider Bollywood a fusion style dance and I believe that the more styles one masters from different countries and traditions, [the] better one can be as a dancer and as a choreographer.
Interested in taking dance with Angelica? Check out her website for upcoming classes.