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SFU enjoys huge response to first-of-a-kind bhangra class

Simon Fraser is offering North America's only university-credit classes in traditional Punjabi folk dance
Simon Fraser University dance instructor Gurpreet Sian demonstrates one of the steps in bhangra.

Bhangra dancing, with its colourful costumes and high-energy steps, is surging in popularity, and at Simon Fraser University, students are clamouring to get into North America's only university-credit class offered in the traditional Punjabi folk dance.

Instructor Gurpreet Sian, with the SFU School for the Contemporary Arts, says reaction to the class, which began last Tuesday, has been mind-blowing.

He said the course was filled to capacity by the third day of registration for SFU's spring term, and now there are 60 students registered, with 20 more wait-listed.

"Bhangra is huge [in Metro Vancouver]," said Sian, who is also executive director of South Asian Arts, which offers bhangra classes in Surrey and Vancouver.

"Honestly, Vancouver is the capital of bhangra outside of India. Vancouver, Surrey, Delta is where we have the best bhangra dancers, schools and the best teams."

He said it is interesting to note there are no South Asian students in the SFU class, and most of them aren't majoring in fine arts.

"It's a first-year course, so the majority aren't faculty of arts students," said Sian. "There are a lot of business students and BA students. There are only about six students in the contemporary arts program."

He believes the students want to learn about a new culture and have some fun. I feel like they just want to learn a new dance form. When we started I asked who had heard of bhangra before and only three people put up their hands.

Not to be confused with Bollywood dancing, Bhangra is a lively folk dance form and type of music that originated in the Punjab region of India. Farmers celebrated a good harvest by taking the moves they did in the fields and turning them into songs. Nowadays, bhangra fuses traditional Punjab instruments with Western pop music.

The more western influence is adding in a drum kit or a guitar or electronic music, drum and bass, reggae. All that music is fused with bhangra now,  said Sian.

He said Bollywood is more of a whole industry like Hollywood  film, dance, music  while bhangra is a folk form of dance and music.

"It’s like comparing Hollywood with hip-hop. In Hollywood movies there are hip-hop songs ... one does sometimes include the other,"  he said. "Bhangra does not equal Bollywood, but almost every Bollywood movie that comes out these days has an element of bhangra, Punjabi music or dance."