Bhangra is a folk dance from the Punjab region of South Asia that is traditionally danced by men. Throughout its global iterations both men and women compete internationally, but men continue to make up the majority of the competitive circuit dancers. Nevertheless, one all-woman dance squad is becoming a sensation.
In a performance from last year, Shaan Mutiyaaran Di, an all women's bhangra team from New York City, assembled themselves into something like a human pyramid: three of the team members stood on the shoulders of others, arms raised, while the rest of the women kneeled with their heads bowed. A woman's voice sings in shrill Punjabi as the women are bathed in red light.
When the sher (essentially, a "story telling") ended, they smoothly jumped to the ground and assembled into their first formation. After that slow, meditative entrance, the team's dizzying choreography is all high kicks and lightening spins. By the end the crowd is cheering, "SMD! SMD!"
SMD remains one of the few all women's teams to compete, and the only one winning trophies.
Shaan Mutiyaaran Di translates to "the pride of women" in Punjabi. The team was started in 2008 after founder Dheerja Kaur, 29, graduated from Columbia University, where she danced on the college team. As Kaur left the main school circuit, she noticed that teams made of all men were beginning to dominate competitions where co-ed teams were more common.
"You'd go to competitions and there would be no girls teams and all three placings would be guys teams," Kaur says over the phone. "And at the same time there was a real lack of female presence, whether it was female teams or female voices really leading in the circuit."
In one memorable performance, the team danced bhangra to the theme song of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. They came out with basketballs and dribbled while they danced. This gimmick might have been the 90s baby wet dream for an all men's team, but having an all women's team do it was even more surprising—and exciting.
Since they've entered the scene, SMD has gone on to bag 17 trophies in eight years. And while their success in competitions has won them fans all over the world, detractors are still prevalent. Captain Reeda Saleem, 26, says the team "struggled" for years to "gain respect within the circuit itself."
Teams are already expected to be innovative, Saleem told me when we talk about the challenges she's faced within bhangra, but an all women's team has to prove itself beyond that.
According to dancer Shana Narula, 29, SMD has to rail against deeply entrenched cultural values in the competitive dance circuit.
"Traditional Punjabi culture sometimes tends to put women down and does not allow for us to do the same things as men," Narula says. "However, being born and brought up in America, I did not grow up with that concept. I am a Punjabi girl and never knew that it was controversial for me to do bhangra until I got more entrenched in the competitive scene."
SMD is not the first of its kind, other all women's teams have competed before them and had to battle through deep-rooted sexism and outright rejection. Kaur says she saw some of this herself in the early years of her team's existence.
"I heard horror stories from some of these [other women's] teams where they'd go to competitions and be the first all girls team a judge had seen. And he'd tell them 'I'm sorry, you just shouldn't be doing this,'" Kaur said."2009 to 2012 were like three years where I felt we were just fighting against this wall. It was the kinda thing that every time we went to a competition and one of the all guys teams would be there and we'd be thinking, 'OK, great, they'll get first and maybe we have a shot at second. We just automatically assumed that."
Even with the obstacles, Kaur says, there's a deep appeal to working only with women. She finds that their sensitivity to detail and ability to emote clearly makes them especially attuned to nakhra, the sense of grace bhangra dancers are meant to carry when they dance. And good dancers, she says, can be trained to do all the same high-energy moves men can.
"There was just this attitude, this mentality that guys just look better doing this dance. Wearing a turban, being really tall and like, being very powerful physically does look really good doing bhangra," Kaur says. "But what was interesting to me as a choreographer was what can the female body do to progress the dance itself."
Being on a co-ed team, Kaur found, was limiting. In typical bhangra performances, men and women are paired off and color-coordinated. This couple, or jodi, circles each other during the fast parts of the routine and play-act a romantic scene during the slower parts. Removing men from the picture, Kaur says, creates something more aesthetically pleasing and sometimes even gender-bending.
Even when paired up with an all men's team, Anakh E Gabroo (AEG), for a co-ed performance, SMD still paired jodi within their team and AEG did the same. The matching heights within the couples was visually appealing, Kaur said, and it was "way more fun to watch" because the chemistry "was not forced."
Much of SMD's dance aesthetic is simply about showing girls having fun while they dance together. A certain level of exuberance is expected from all bhangra teams, but SMD is known for bringing a level of cheekiness to their performances too.
In recent years, bhangra performances have started to be recorded and distributed through channels on YouTube. And as these videos proliferate across the internet, so too has SMD's fame. Nowadays the team regularly get messages on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram from other dancers saying they find SMD inspiring. Getting messages from Punjab in particular, Narula says, is like coming full-circle.
"That makes me really excited to see that we have been able to reach the land of where it all began," Narula said. "And if people in Punjab can appreciate what we are doing here in America, then that's a monumental achievement."
For Kaur, breaking down barriers is exactly why SMD was started. "Inspiring young women…That's like, the least we could do."