“You gotta look like a man”
This is the kind of feedback we use during practices for Northwestern’s Bhangra team, a competitive Indian dance team here at Northwestern. I don’t think Bhangra is inherently sexist, and I am certainly not accusing my team members and myself of sexism, but I do think this attitude within Bhangra may very well have been formed as an aggression against the model minority myth that has labeled Asian Americans for the last several decades.
Looking back at its history, Bhangra is traditionally a folk dance, not done as a performance, but as a celebration. Originating in the Indian state of Punjab, men traditionally danced Bhangra in rejoice and festivity for the arrival of spring. The word means “intoxicated with joy”. And we certainly still see this character of Bhangra today. At almost any Punjabi wedding reception, guests dance like this with all the traditional joy and exuberance.
But in more recent history, I think the genre/style took a turn. In the mid-twentieth century, after India’s independence from British Empire, the environment in Punjab was tense and unstable because it had been split into Pakistan and India. So, many Indians left and went to Britain, growing many Indian-British communities. And today, there are all sorts of Indian-Western ethnic groups, in Britain, America, Australia, Canada, and more. But the thing to note is that these communities were minorities.
Asian-American minority communities have their own tumultuous history following immigration. Yen Le Espiritu discusses it at length in Asian American Men and Women, with all the discrimination, implicit and explicit, faced by Asian-American immigrants. There were Japanese internment campus during World War II in the western United States. More broadly there was “Yellow Peril” that it had an influence after restrictive immigration law after immigration law in the US. And all this led to the emergence of the model minority myth.
The model minority myth put Asian-Americans in a stereotype of passivity and obedience. Males, in particular, were regarded much more weakly, and emasculated to an extent, considered hyposexual, in comparison to the appropriately-masculine hegemonic white men.
So, I would assume, many of those Indians who left India for Britain, and later the rest of the Western world, upon suddenly becoming minorities, frequently encountered the model minority myth. And I wonder, whether those who were involved with Bhangra, found it to be an outlet with which to push back against the model minority myth.
The reason I say this is the culture around competitive Bhangra today. In my own experience with the dance, there are two equally strong emotional components to the performance: one is the same joy and excitement that has been there all along, but the other is an emphasis on power and strength. The goal is usually to look big and strong, tall and powerful, regardless of your actual size and stature. You’ve got to keep your legs wide, chest out, and chin up. And the longer your arms and legs look, the better. The captains have literally said to us, “You’ve gotta look like a man” or sometimes, in a more joking sense, “Bhangra was a men’s dance, so make it look like that.” While that, especially that second line, can lend itself to all sorts of analytical directions, I’m focusing on what it says about masculinity and the effect of the model minority myth.
Bhangra competitions are full of men and women of all shapes and sizes, many big and mighty-looking, but others smaller. But when they get on stage, it is a battle to see who can look stronger, fiercer, and more powerful, regardless of natural physical size. And in a sense, you can turn this around and see it as a battle of who is the least weak and unaggressive. I am not saying this is the sole reason for the energy and power required for the dance, because that was an inherent part of it all along. But in today’s competitive circuit, those traits seem to be getting more weight placed on them as a result.
But if this is true, if this is how many Asian-American young people are subliminally challenging the model minority myth, there are other issues. We are doing nothing to counter gender binary and masculine normativity in a broader sense. We are trying to prove the model minority myth wrong by saying we do have the strength and power needed to be appropriately masculine. We are striving to get ourselves to the level that is given to white men, the level which the model minority myth pushed us down from. And while that does work to ease the model minority stereotype, it only reinforces the broader system: hegemonic white masculinity is true masculinity.
A second issue applies to myself, and other female-identified Bhangra dancers. Speaking as a girl, I really love the dance. Using so much energy and power, punching your arms with incredible force and jumping with the highest knees possible—it all contributes to an exhilarating high when performing. And so, on a level of critique and improving stylistically, I understand where someone is coming from when they tell me I need to look more like a man. They are referring to the norms of masculinity, and telling me to adopt them in my dancing.
There are all sorts of things to challenge here. As a woman, should I be challenging that looking like a man is preferable? Or as a person, should I be challenging that the traits needed for this dance are regarded as the most desirable form of masculinity? Or as a member of the larger system, should I be challenging that Bhangra has developed this emphasis on power and strength as method of combating the model minority myth, in a way that is only reinforcing the system that created it? I think awareness of all of these frames can be important, in turn. But if we need to choose, I think the last deserves the most attention because it is the most underlying and the least evident to someone simply watching a show.
For more history that relates to Indian immigrants and the origins of Bhangra, see this: http://www.punjabonline.com/servlet/library.history?Action=Bhangra
And for examples of performances so you can see the power and energy for yourself, check these out!