One of the great things about volunteering as an usher is the opportunity to see entertainment one would otherwise miss. Recently, Phoenix’s historic Orpheum Theatre played host to the Bollywood America 2015 Filmi-Fusion Dance Competition.
I had almost no idea what that was when I signed up. I recognized “Bollywood” as a genre of South Asian film which often includes elaborately choreographed dance sequences but “Filmi-Fusion” was a complete mystery. Also, I had no idea that, whatever it was, there were team competitions for doing it. Silly me! It was kind of amazing.
According to their website and brochure; “Bollywood America is the most prestigious and esteemed nonprofit Bollywood dance competition in the country….” The Phoenix event was the final, “all-star” championships of winners from the competitions organized around the United States. The teams are associated with universities and professional dance teams and compete on an intercollegiate basis “akin to the NCAA tournament“. There were 11 teams representing universities in the United States and Canada.
For definition, “filmi” is music composed for the Indian popular film industry, using traditional and modern instruments, with melodies and vocal styles derived from Indian folk and classical music. This music was mashed up with contemporary popular and hip-hop musical styles; hence “Filmi-Fusion”. Similarly, the choreography and dance styles are a fusion of traditional Indian dancing with hip-hop and a little hint of cheerleading. Imagine Indian folk dancing in a Busby Berkeley musical, but choreographed for a high-impact aerobics class by Twyla Tharp and M.C. Hammer.
The competition format is structured. Each team creates a video with voice-over narration establishing some scenario to be portrayed in the dance number that follows. The videos all ran about two minutes in length. Some were inspirational, touching on topics like post-traumatic stress disorder and immigrant families struggling to assimilate while remaining connected to their cultural heritage. Others were sentimental stories of young love. Still others were humorous takes on popular culture artifacts like “How I Met Your Mother” or Las Vegas ‘Caper’ movies. After the video, the screen rises and the dance number begins. The set pieces were creative, if occasionally amateurish looking. The costumers were lavish and colorful. Periodically there would be some lip-synced voice-over narration furthering the story covering some set change or musical transition. The dance sequences all seemed to run about 10 minutes in length.
The competition was judged and awards are given in the categories of; Best Introduction Video, Best Mix, Best Costumes, Best Theme Storyline, Best Male Group and Best Female Group. Individual awards were giving for Mr. and Miss “Bollywood America”, kind of MVP awards to continue the NCAA theme. Ultimately two of the teams are selected as winner and runner-up.
Most of the teams and the overwhelming majority of the audience, more than 1400 in all, appeared to be ethnically South Asian. At the start of the competition, the audience was asked to stand for the national anthems of the United States, Canada (one the competing teams was from Ryerson University in Toronto), and India. I could sing along with the first two but was respectfully clueless on the third. I was definitely in the minority in not knowing the Indian national anthem but I was proud I was able to help out the Ryerson team on “Oh Canada”. Between the dances there was a lot of ‘be-true-to-your-school chanting back and forth.
The eleven teams represented; Northwestern, Ryerson, hometown favorites Arizona State, the University of Michigan (Go Blue!), Georgia Tech, Rutgers, Penn, and four campuses of the University of California, Irvine, San Diego, Berkley, and Los Angeles. There was a good distribution of the awards but, in the end, it was U.C.L.A. taking home the cup.
As one might expect of an event staffed by and for undergrads, there were some organizational and logistical challenges. At 6 hours, it was a long shift for the volunteers. My overall impression, however, was it was a well-behaved group of young adults who were passionate about the activity being cheered on by friends and several generations of family. There was too much ‘downtime’ but when the teams were performing on stage they were nothing short of mesmerizing. It’s too bad so many ushers opted not to volunteer for this one. They missed a great show which was quite unlike anything I’d seen before.