Teach Me How to Bhangra: Sikh Student Association Hosts UCI’s Annual Bhangra Night

Students throughout SoCal and other UC campuses celebrated Punjabi culture and danced to the music and moves of Bhangra at UCI’s Annual Bhangra Night last Saturday, which was hosted by the UCI Sikh Student Association (SSA).

When I entered the Emerald Bay Ballroom, I was immediately overwhelmed by the vibrant hues from the neon event lights and the loud, vivacious sounds of modern Bhangra, a music genre that consists of dance-heavy tracks sung in Punjabi backed by a fusion of hip-hop, R&B, and South Asian beats.

My eyes were drawn to the beautiful details of the bright, colorful, bejewelled Punjabi attire on the girls throughout the room. Some girls were dressed in formal, loose trousers, sleeved tops of varying lengths and had thin, long scarves.

Circles and pairs of people were doing the Bhangra dances throughout the center dance floor. Everyone in the room was doing the “dhamal,” a dance move similar to skipping where the dancer balances on the balls of their feet as they alternate in raising one knee high up while hopping on the other leg. Everyone dancing also had their arms out in the shape of a “V” and had their palms out while simultaneously moving their shoulders up and down, which can be part done alone or in sync with the dhamal.

The evening was organized by the Sikh Student Association at UCI, a religious and cultural group that aims to build a space where Sikh students can come together and practice the principles of Sikhism.

“The sole purpose [of tonight] is so everyone can come together and practice our culture,” said UCI SSA President Inderpreet Kaur Sagoo.

While the dance and music of Bhangra is lively and upbeat, there is a deep history behind it that portrays the dark-yet-inspirational cultural narrative of Punjab.

“[Bhangra] originated from Punjab, India. Punjab actually used to be a lot bigger before the partition of Pakistan and India in 1947, and it’s become separated from East and West. So, I guess even in Punjab, Pakistan, this dance is practiced. It is actually a dance that was done when the harvest season began. It was a time of happiness. It was a time of being in good health, for having food, and for being thankful,” said Sagoo.

The prevalence of the dance and music genre of Bhangra today in the Punjab community — whether it is at a family wedding or event at UC Irvine’s Student Center — shows the narrative of a culture that survived a violent partition and dispersion, but is still thriving.

“I love all sorts of [Bhangra]. Like over here, I guess modern is playing a lot more. But it is free-form, and you can do whatever you want. But you can still see little aspects of traditional Bhangra moves. Like right now, a Dr. Dre song is playing…  But you will see other performers doing a Bhangra dance to it. It’s nice to kind of see where Bhangra has come today,” said Sagoo.