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Wednesday, July 9, 2008

So You Think You Can Dance?

Cutting a rug at Pakistani weddings

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A woman plays the dholak, a Pakistani drum, while other women surrounding her croon offbeat to a yesteryear Pakistani classic, “Teri meri jori barri fit rawai gi” (“Our couple would fit very well together”). A little girl bangs on a tambourine in her own little world. And the other side of the room starts booing.

  “Start the dancing! What is this oldie singing?” screams a boy. The “other side,” the groom’s side, wants to start the dance competition, while the aunts from the bride’s side want to sing their old classics.

  “Let’s start the real entertainment,” yells a young girl from the groom’s side.

  “So You Think You Can Dance,” the popular dance routine program on Fox, has nothing on Pakistani weddings. They typically last four days and consist of a number of ceremonies, includingthe mehndi, a celebration of the bride applying henna to her hands, and a segment where gifts are exchanged and the dancing takes place. In Milwaukee, where the Pakistani-American population has exploded since the 1980s but where there is no Pakistani cultural center or dance troupe, weddings have become a venue for Pakistani youth to compete on the dance floor.

  Many customs are observed. The bridal party decides on a dress code for participants in the mehndi. It can involve wearing a specific color, like the traditional green or yellow, or a more contemporary theme such as dressing up in 1970s garb. The atmosphere is intended to suggest lushness and wealth, especially the elaborate gift exchange between the families of the groom and the bride. Trays of organza and tulle embroidered with gold and silver are brought to the center room, followed by platters of gold and diamond jewelry with shoes and handbags, showing that the married couple will be well provided for by the parents.

  Tables covered in silk are laden with colored sweets and candles. Dainty clay pots are filled with oil and burning wicks resting on fragrant flowers. The smell of rice and kebab fills the air as friends and families sing and dance. The dancing is rooted in the courts of Moghul India, where courtesans sang a few couplets and performed a dance for the men at the mehndi while women watched from veiled corners. The custom trickled down into the weddings of everyday people and became more inclusive, inviting women and girls of the families to partake in the entertainment. In recent decades the dancing has turned into a contest spurred by family pride. It’s a matter of honor to outperform the opposing family. For many in the wedding party, the “unofficial” dance competitions have become the mehndi’s main attraction.

  “I think that it is reflective of the competitive atmosphere [of Pakistani weddings] in general,” says Aisha Zaidi, who is planning her cousin Saima Tariq’s wedding in Milwaukee this summer. Zaidi looks forward to performing at the mehndi.

  The dance contests have even generated local stars. Ali Siddiqui has become a fixture at most Pakistani weddings in Milwaukee. Although he’s not a professional performer, Siddiqui is like a popular wedding singer because of his vigorous, accomplished participation in the singing and dancing at every mehndi he’s been invited to. He even made one wedding party cry because of his emotional rendition of “Baabul ki duain leti ja” (“take the prayers of your father with you”).

  It’s a lot of work. “My brother is getting married in November,” Siddiqui says. “We began practicing and putting the music together in April… [The competitive nature] is so high that since the bride and groom have mutual friends, the friends have stopped meeting each other so information on the dances doesn’t leak out.”

Hurray for Bollywood

  Decades ago when this competitive streak began, the performances were freestyle, impromptu renditions to current Pakistani songs. Nowadays Pakistanis are turning to Indian as well as Punjabi music. Times are changing, with dance steps influenced by Bollywood and choreography taking center stage. Prep time can range from a week to six months, depending on the difficulty of the dances and the dedication of the dancers.

  “I choreographed the dance steps for my brother’s wedding,” says Sana Eshai, a Waukesha resident who’s a former student of KrutiDanceAcademy in Atlanta. “Nowadays, the young generation chooses to dance to modern songs and the dance steps are a mixture of traditional Indian and hip-hop dance steps.”

  In Milwaukee’s Pakistani-American community there’s also a move toward dances that fuse hip-hop with bhangra, a native Punjabi dance. With artists such as Juggy D and Rishi Rich colloborating with Western artists, it’s no surprise that this fusion is taking place. A Madison group that has embraced this development is the University of Wisconsin School of Bhangra, a student organization that performs annually at the university and makes dances for weddings upon request.

  With family honor at stake, there’s extreme pressure in the air at Pakistani weddings. “So You Think You Can Dance” has professional judges, but Pakistani weddings have an even harsher tribunal: the audience. The guests have the last word on which side can really dance. At the end of the competition the women will gab about who did the better dances and will even go to the losing and winning families and give their two cents. At the end of the night one family will leave feeling let down and exhausted from the months of preparation, while the other enjoys the high of victory.

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