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Getting Their Bhangra On at the White House: Two Broncos Led a Punjabi Bhangra Dance Group to Give a "Once in a Lifetime" Performance

Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2009
One alumna and a current MBA student were among the 13 Bay Area Bhangra Empire dancers invited to the first State Dinner at the White House Nov. 24
One alumna and a current MBA student were among the 13 Bay Area Bhangra Empire dancers invited to the first State Dinner at the White House Nov. 24

SANTA CLARA, Calif., Dec. 16, 2009 -- Two SCU Broncos were part of history last month: Bringing the traditional Punjabi folk dance called Bhangra to the White House, on the occasion of the first state dinner given by President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama.

Michelle Puneet Gill, ‘05, and Omer Mirza, currently an MBA candidate at the Leavey School of Business, were among the 13 members of the group Bay Area Bhangra Empire providing entertainment for the Nov. 24 dinner  for India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his wife Gursharan Kaur.

Their gig came after a surprise, whirlwind invitation from the Office of the First Lady.The team, in scarlet red and pistachio green costumes, took the stage in a vaulted, elegant tent around 9:30 p.m., performing their high-energy routine with 10 dancers, two cymbal players and a drummer.

The night “felt like a dream,’’ says Gill, a finance major now working for a mortgage company.  “To be in such a historic place and in front of such high-profile dignitaries was unbelievable."

Their six-minute performance was a big hit. Guest Sanjay Gupta, the CNN Health correspondent and an early Obama pick for Surgeon General, posted a Twitter alert during the performance, calling Bhangra Empire a “remarkable” group that was “really terrific.”

“We definitely got a good reaction from the crowd, said Mirza. “We saw some people while we were dancing who were really getting into it.’’

For other photos of the event check out Bhangra Empire's site.

Mirza said the group liked being a bit of a surprise for the high-powered crowd, who were familiar with the night’s other performers: singer Jennifer Hudson, the National Symphony Orchestra, “Slumdog Millionaire” composer A.R. Rahman, and Chicago jazz vocalist Kurt Elling.

“We were something they weren’t expecting,’’ he said. “We knew we were representing not only the U.S., but also our heritage. It was definitely a good experience.”

Afterwards, President Obama praised the group and, referring to a part of the dance where the performers dramatically reveal the words PUNJAB under their vests, said to them "you really got us on the 'PUNJAB.”  He shook each group member’s hand and asked their names, and even attempted a few Bhangra moves with the group before moving on, Mirza said.

Captain Mirza’s assessment of Obama’s Bhangra potential? "He was good. Definitely had some rhythm in him."

Gill says she got her start in the centuries-old dance form of Bhangra while at SCU. She joined a campus Bhangra group as a senior, and a year later helped build the newly formed Bay Area Bhangra Empire dance group.  Empire, now nearly 20 members strong with Mirza as its captain, won second place at a key national Bhangra competition in Boston two weeks before their White House debut.

Empire dances a modern version of Bhangra, which means they include women, and they have 12 performers, rather than the traditional eight. Sharing their passion with the White House and the world was a once-in-a-lifetime moment, says Gill. “We were all so overwhelmed,” she says. “We wished our other teammates, family, and friends could have joined us. “


Deborah Lohse

(408) 554-5121


Tags: alumni, multicultural center

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