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Dancing With The Sardars

Dancing With The Sardars

September 09, 2010

Once a month, Punjab invades San Francisco.

It was no normal Saturday for me. I was antsy and restless, dithering about what to wear, wondering when to leave, if traffic was going to be heavy going into San Francisco at that time of the evening, if I would be able to find a decent parking spot.

You see, for the first time ever, I didn’t have my kids on the same night that Dholrhythms holds Non Stop Bhangra. And this one was special: it was their 60th event – a five-year anniversary.

I’ve been to their dance classes for nearly two years now, and have taken my kids to Mini Non Stop Bhangra, but never have I had the chance to go as an adult, unencumbered by my cute but exhaustingly spirited spawn. The prospect was actually rather daunting for me. I haven’t been out clubbing in a very long time. And I always hated going out alone even when I was going out on a regular basis.

Well, I told myself, it’s not like I don’t know anyone there. I stalk Vicki Virk and Non Stop Bhangra on Twitter, after all.

I finally settled on what to wear (my best blue kameeze and the fancy dupatta with jeans so I had pockets for my ID and keys) and what time to leave (8:30). Traffic wasn’t bad at all, only a five minute wait at the toll plaza. I had the tunes cranked up by then and was so lost in anticipation I didn’t even stop singing Gabru Jawan as loud as my voice would manage while I paid the toll and only realized when the Chinese toll taker smiled at me that I’d probably made his night. I even found a parking spot on the same street, only two blocks away. You have no idea what a stroke of luck that is on a Saturday night in San Francisco.

I was the first one there, which is the way I like it. And when the door man came out I heard Rav-E on the dhol inside and got a peek at Dholrhythms rehearsing on the stage. Recognizing me from previous visits, we were joking about being too old to be out partying at this hour and the few minutes until I could go in flew by.

I went in and settled myself on one of the seats along the wall, near the stage, chatting with a woman near me and watching the people arrive. And it was a typical diverse San Francisco crowd that trickled rapidly in. All sorts of folks were there, from young desi guys and girls to city hipsters, men in turbans to men in dreadlocks, people young enough to be my children to people far older than I. Everyone was dancing from the start and my seat mate and I were forced to stand and join them or lose a place on the floor it was soon that crowded.

At this point I really should let you in on two of my secrets; little foibles that make me tick. One of these is that I typically do very poorly in crowds. I don’t know if it’s a touch of agoraphobia, or a type of mob-specific claustrophobia, but standing so close to people I don’t know and – gasp! – bumping into them is usually a fast track to a stifled feeling and a headache from grinding my teeth.

The other little secret is that I am utterly embarrassed to dance in public. It’s something I’m just not comfortable doing. A black friend of mine told me over twenty years ago that I “dance like a white girl” when we were out at a club one night. She meant it as a joke, but it made me so self-conscious that I’ve been reluctant to repeat such a thing, ghostly images of drunken fathers dancing ludicrously in wedding videos swimming in my head.

And this wasn’t just dancing in public; it was dancing an bhangra in public. I nervously hopped from foot to foot and threw my hands in the air and tried to relax. Luckily, it wasn’t too much longer before Vicki and company took to the stage for the dance lesson.

She’s a natural with the crowd, and they were already eager to get going. We all sort of fell into this give and take of pure joy to be there. The last of my emotional reluctance fell away and we were all dancing together in a simple routine that got us all in the same rhythm and brought us all to the same place. There was really not room to dance at all, but somehow we did. Dancing the same steps at the same time must be the key to no one getting punched in the face by accident, I thought.

After the lesson came performances by Dholrhythms and some of their dance class students. The ones that make it look easy. I still manage to feel like an aged and clumsy buffalo at class in comparison. Every eye in the house was trained on the stage and the energy rose even higher as we cheered for them.

And then it was time to just dance. And dance we did. I finally gave in to the beat and did my best to dance in place without putting out anyone’s eye. I finally gave up on trying to do sweeping arm movements and kept my hands in the air, and just kept to the beat. And I found that I could.

I wanted to close my eyes and let the music sweep me away, but that wasn’t possible, as I kept hitting folks walking by. The people dancing near me – with me – changed as the crowd slowly moved around and through itself. For once I was a part of the crowd, rather than fighting against it, and I was happy to be there.

It was also very hot, and I found myself retreating to the sidewalk outside several times to catch my breath. While out there, I met an older gentleman and his wife who told me that they had come all the way from Chicago just to come to Non Stop Bhangra. Later, when people were going up on the stage and dancing, he was the first one up there. And dance he did, to the cheers and whistles of the crowd.

In all the years I’d gone out clubbing in this very city, I had never once been to a show or party where everyone in the house was dancing. The energy was incredible. Literally every person in that place was either dancing or drinking water and having a breather just to go back in and dance some more.

I went in several times, but my knee, which I injured in a motorcycle accident years ago, was screaming bloody murder and I was getting too hot. I wanted to stay, because a surprise DJ was in town from the UK and was going to spin a set. I just couldn’t do it, though. I needed to go home or I knew I wouldn’t be able to walk tomorrow. It was impossible to be in the club and not dance; utterly impossible to resist being part of the jumping joyous crowd. Reluctantly I said good night to my friend the door man and trudged slowly up the street to my car.

Now I’m exhausted and my knee is not talking to me and is considering going on strike, but I cannot wait until my next opportunity to dance until I drop.

Non Stop Bhangra, third Saturday of every month, the Rickshaw Stop, 155 Fell Street, San Francisco. Doors open at 9, bhangra lesson at 9:30, Dholrhythms performance at 10.


  • Ricky
    24.02.11 08:36 AM
    Nice article, I can understand the feeling of live Dhol and Bhangra.. awesome, reminds me school days!!
  • Gori Girl
    Gori Girl
    11.09.10 08:05 PM
    Then I'll probably see you there. Somewhere. In the vast crowd. LOL
  • Kamal
    10.09.10 05:25 AM
    Great article! I was very much like you, hadn't gone clubbing for a long time because kids came first but now they are grown so I started going back out again (once a month)..the only place I go to is NSB..this month will be my 4th NSB event and I'm loving it.

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