Fizaa celebrates dance culture of South Asia


Photo Courtesy of Fizaa

Fizaa celebrates first place win at 2019 NASHA Purdue competition on Jan. 26.

By Emily Dao, Staff Writer

In Hindi, the word “fizaa” translates to atmosphere or, as Nishu Paul puts it, “the vibe in the air.” Paul is a sophomore in LAS and dance captain of Fizaa, the competitive intercollegiate dance team that began in 2008. Many members said it provides them with a sense of unity and belonging to their culture and community.

“I grew up basically listening just to Bollywood music,” said Saachi Ramesh, sophomore in LAS. “Bollywood music and dance have been such big parts of my life, and I feel like it’s really nice that I get to keep that part of home with me when I’m here. Just having a community of people who also have the same kind of sentimentality towards Bollywood music is really nice.”

Fizaa is a South Asian fusion dance group that mixes traditional Bollywood style with contemporary hip hop dancing. The group travels around the nation to participate in competitions. This year, the team won first place at Nasha Purdue and second at Nachte Raho at the University of Iowa.

The team is student-run and led by Karan Desai, Paul and Ramesh. They have 21 members.

“(Fizaa) helped me come out of my shell more because I’m relatively on the shy side,” Ramesh said. “It taught me a lot of confidence and to have patience. There’s a lot of responsibility because I’m in charge of like 19 other dancers.”

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These three students are not only responsible for choreographing the dance and starring as the story’s leading roles but also creating the theme, storyline and plot of the production.

For this year’s theme, Fizaa told a modern adaptation of the old Indian folktale “Anarkali and Salim.” The story is comparable to Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” where two young lovers are pulled apart by family conflicts.

“The story is very strongly linked to our culture,” said Desai, sophomore in Business. “I feel like it definitely brought me a lot closer to a lot of older stories and things of the past.”

Prior to the performance, the team displayed a brief video introducing audience members to the characters and set the stage. In roughly eight minutes, Fizaa encapsulated the love, pain and betrayal of their modern adaptation of the classic story.

“Our dances incorporate a storyline, so all of our dances are based on that. It’s more like watching a musical rather than someone just dancing,” Ramesh said.

Through costumes, facial expressions and intricately choreography, members transitioned between classical Bollywood dance styles to hip- hop, fusing together popular songs like “Circus” by Britney Spears with traditional Indian songs.

At Purdue, when it was announced Fizaa won first place, Ramesh said she felt overwhelmed with pride.

“After we performed, I got off (the) stage, and I just cried. We hadn’t even placed yet,” Ramesh said. “When we won, I just sobbed because I hadn’t thought we could get to that point. Seeing it all come together at the end and finally paying off toward something just felt amazing.”

Of all the stories Fizaa has told through dance, many team members say their most important one is South Asian heritage awareness.

“We do have references to our culture and our country, so that aspect of storytelling is always there,” Paul said. “Incorporating a very Westernized concept but in a South Asian way … it’s nice to see that juxtaposition of cultures. It’s a great message of diversity and inclusion.”

The process of telling their story required extreme attentiveness, care and time. During competition season, rehearsal could last to up to seven hours. They had been working on their performance of “Anarkali and Salim” since last May.

However, Paul said he still was able to find enjoyment in the rigorous schedule and workload because of the members he was able to spend his time with.

“It never feels like it’s a lot of work when you to have to work with our team,” Paul said. “We know we have to get stuff done, but we’re doing it in a way where everyone’s having fun, and everyone just feels like they’re mixing together.”

Fizaa is not exclusive to students of Indian descent. Anyone interested in learning to dance Bollywood style is welcome to be part of the Fizaa community.

Richard Nguyen, a new member of Fizaa and freshman in LAS, said joining the team this year has helped him grow not only as a dancer but as a person. He said he looks forward to continuing with the team for the remainder of his time at the University.

“Being on a team, being together all the time and learning how to get along with different types of people has been good,” Nguyen said. “We’re all family. That’s the best aspect of it.”

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Correction: A previous version of this article states, in the photo caption, Fizaa won the 2019 NASHA Purdue competition on Jan. 16. The Daily Illini regrets this error.