The stage is set. The lights flicker, revealing nervous performers. A chord is struck and the first note fills the air. The performers move with the beat of the music, starting to dance. It’s a dance of ages, telling a story of a people who lived long ago. They dance for battle first, performers encircling each other, stick striking stick making harsh sounds. Then they dance for peace.
This isn’t just a dance. It’s something filled with powerful emotions. Happiness, anger and frustration are all present, yet the dancers demand perfection. Physically, the moment takes its toll, draining the energy with each strike of a stick. Looking over at each other, they stay strong, taking pride that not one has given in to the temptation of quitting. Hours of planning and rehearsal divulge in just one instant as they dance, and it becomes obvious that MSU Raas is no ordinary dance team.[raasteam1]
Formed in 2002, MSU Raas quickly became an outlet for those who wished to celebrate traditional Indian dances and the beauty of Indian culture itself. In 2005, the Raas team experienced a brief hiatus from the MSU scene. When health studies sophomore Priya Shah and economics and journalism sophomore Meera Patel arrived at MSU, the Raas group officially announced it was unable to continue and eventually disbanded. Because Shah and Patel had a history of dancing from a very young age and an interest in continuing to dance throughout college, the disintegration of Raas was at first a disappointment. But unlike many others, Shah and Patel were not content with just waiting for dance group to find them. Instead, they looked on it as an opportunity to rebuild.
“We were really mad because we have been dancing our whole life…so we did something about it,” Shah said. With high hopes and ambitions, Shah and Patel proceeded to restore the Raas team to what it was. They established themselves as captains and tapped into past experiences to become choreographers. Even though the style that Shah and Patel had grown up with was different than the Raas dance, they creatively found ways to incorporate it.
“We’ve been doing competitions since we were seven – not this one – but an Indian folk dance,” Patel said. For both dancers, it was a mix of trial and error. Shah and Patel’s original style of dancing did not include the wooden sticks used by Raas. While the older dances had some of the same movements, Raas was more aggressive. Shah and Patel struggled to find an in-between. It was then they decided to take an old routine and integrate the wooden sticks.
Sitting in the audience is an experience. The lights play across the stage as the males and females separate themselves into groups, playfully taunting each other. The girls dance to the high chords, the boys answer with every low one. They are talking to each other in steps. There is always energy and the music hardly ever slows from its rapid tempo.
The history of these traditional dances dates back thousands of years. “It’s a religious dance formed in the state of India called Gujarat. It’s done with sticks, which is supposed to represent battles. It’s telling a story,” said Jasper Singh Gill, MSU Raas team member and human biology senior.
[natwa2]To Gill in particular, it is important for people to learn about Raas because of what they gain in experience and eventually learn to stand for. Dancing in Raas means preserving Indian culture and way of life. By representing this culture, Raas contributes to MSU’s diverse landscape in a creative way.
Dancing is not one’s average way of conveying ideas and preserving culture, but it is effective. And for health studies junior and Raas member Nithin Natwa, expanding a worldview is part of growing as a dancer. “The way to adapt and get better at dancing is to learn all aspects. If you see someone from a different background, you try to learn as much as you can about them,” Natwa said.
MSU Raas and groups like it create diversity because multiple cultures and various backgrounds exist on the team. Contrary to what most might believe, “it’s not just an Indian thing,” Natwa said. Anyone can try out to become part of Raas, and dancing abilities are used as the criterion to decide whether one makes it, not cultural or ethnic background. [raasteam2]
Being a part of the Raas team means not only becoming trained in a new style of dance but also acquiring a new social network. For many members, especially during their freshman year, it was comforting to find a place to fit in. “It’s weird [when we don’t have practice]. I seriously miss everyone,” Patel said.
But not having practice seems to be a rare occurrence, especially when it comes close to competition. When there is an upcoming competition, Raas members practice every night, sometimes for six hours. Regular rehearsals can consume up to 10 hours per week.
Most dancers, like Gill, feel the amount of commitment required is necessary. The majority of competitors are people members know from their hometown neighborhoods or surrounding communities. Like most MSU sports, the MSU Raas team competes against the University of Michigan in their competitions. Because they know those people and grew up with them, it makes them want to win all the more, Gill said.
And, if it is all about the competition, the spirit of those who root them on becomes vital. Matching up with your adversaries is not enough. The Raas team needs the crowd. The focus of a team like MSU Raas is to get a crowd out there, to get MSU’s community to support the team. Maybe it’s just to hear the electrifying chants of white and green or experience the rumble of voices on their behalf, but whatever the case, most members love to see support. “That’s what we always want to see. That’s why we’re green, right?” Natwa said.
MSU Raas recently participated in a competition in Ann Arbor called Dandia Dhamaka. For their first competition, the team performed extremely well, earning a third-place trophy in a competition against 10 other teams. It was the first time MSU Raas placed over U-M. With a trophy already under its belt, the team plans to attend another competition in Miami over spring break. Competitions like this are held every year at different schools. “It’s like intercollegiate sports, like football and basketball. There are big events like at some colleges in New York with different colleges competing,” Gill said.
[dance12]Part of the requirements for these competitions is that each team comes up with their own theme. MSU Raas’s theme was derived from the film 300 and formed the basis of the dance, costumes and music. Then, they incorporated traditional songs in a finale, which included upbeat fighting, a playful fight that contrasted with the intense battle executed at the beginning of the routine.
It is that rush of fresh energy that makes Raas so important to its members. Natwa said when the competition comes up, he’s suddenly not tired anymore. “You just get more amp up and more amp up. It’s like you’re in a car and you’re accelerating. You don’t stop accelerating until you’re done with the dance. And when it’s over you’re like ‘Oh that was amazing,'” he said.
Becoming a part of the MSU Raas is entering a commitment. There are competitions, registration and costumes fees, some of which is paid for out of the team’s own pocket. They must fundraise and work hard to get nominated to even participate. Every year tryouts resume and everyone who wants to be on the team has to participate – even Shah and Patel, the captains. “There is no one who just stays on the team,” Gill said. Out of the 30 who usually try out, eight males and females are selected based on skill and effort. [raasteam3]
Those who are chosen become part of the dancing that is meant to represent a portion of Indian culture. To several on the team, the dance Raas is really essential. It helps them balance themselves out as people, giving room for the little things in life as well as the big. “If you want to do something non-academic, it’s really good for you,” Gill said.
MSU Raas is more then a dance. It’s a story. The great part about stories is that they change with each person who tells it. In 2008, MSU Raas has found yet another meaning in its dance tale, and next year, those dancers will tell their own story.