Sonali Dadoo was just a student in high school when her bhangra team received crushing feedback from a panel of judges in 2012. She hoped things would change, but six years later, at another competition, her team received nearly the exact same comments. “The judges explicitly asked, ‘Why did you bring girls to the competition?’ ” Dadoo says. “They were just perplexed by this idea. They were like, ‘You should have just brought males.’ ”
Bhangra, a centuries-old Punjabi folk dance, was originally performed by men to celebrate the spring harvest. Since then, it’s evolved into a competitive sport on the global level (and an upbeat style of pop music), complete with its own host of academies, coaches, teams and competitions. Even with that growth, and a rapidly expanding female presence, many see the form as still inherently masculine.
“Traditionally, when you think about good bhangra dancing, it’s always characterized by the men in the circuit: being big and athletic,” says Navneet Pandher, a member of the all-women D.C. Bhangra Crew (DCBC). As a result, the judging criteria at competitions emphasize those traits, leading to comments like the ones Dadoo’s team received.
But Pandher, along with the rest of DCBC, are out to break that male-dominated system. That’s why DCBC is hosting Raniyaan di Raunaq, the first all-women’s bhangra competition in the U.S., at the Schlesinger Center in Alexandria on Saturday. The event aims to address “the fact that our women have not been highlighted, showcased or supported in the way men’s teams have been,” says Asha Thanki, one of the competition’s creative chairs. “This is meant to be an affinity space, an empowering space.”
For the bhangra circuit — where all-women teams compete for token slots at competitions, at which both they and co-ed teams are scrutinized by majority-male panels and might only have access to male coaches or managers — Raniyaan di Raunaq is something of a revolution. All nine competing teams, which are coming from across the U.S. and Canada, and the three exhibition teams are composed entirely of women or those who identify as transgender or nonbinary or are from similarly marginalized groups (the organizers prefer the term “all-womxn”). So are the competition’s executive board, judging panel and the support staffs for each team.
“This is the first time that every female who is even remotely associated with bhangra finally has a time to shine,” says Dadoo, who is co-captain of one of the competing teams, First Class Bhangra Girls.
Men are allowed to volunteer as day-of staff but, in essence, when the members of DCBC set out to create an “all-women’s competition,” they meant at every single level of the event’s production and execution. They want to foster the “best experience possible for dancers as dancers and women as women,” says operations chair Saranga Arora.
The judges’ rubric was crafted according to the competition’s vision for dancers expressing themselves, and their interpretation of bhangra, to the fullest onstage. “Everybody should be the best of themselves and every team should bring their own identity,” says Neha Batra, one of the six judges. Batra, a bhangra dancer with over 10 years of experience, notes that this is the “first tangible step” she’s seen in the effort to assert the expansive female presence in bhangra, to show it’s not just for the boys.
And that’s exactly what DCBC intends Raniyaan di Raunaq to be: a first step.
“One women’s bhangra competition isn’t going to undo many generations’ worth of inequality,” says Pandher, who also serves as the event’s judging and registration chair. “But we’re hoping our competition will lead to productive conversation and plant the seeds of change.”
Rachel M. Schlesinger Concert Hall and Arts Center, 4915 E. Campus Drive, Alexandria; Sat., 7-10 p.m., $20 (VIP: $30).