Santa Clara University

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Bhangra empire rocks the White House

Two Broncos in an award-winning Punjabi folk dance. The Obamas' first state dinner. And the performance of a lifetime.

By Mansi Bhatia

obamas-2_250When Omer Mirza MBA '11 received an e-mail in on November 20 asking him to call a number in Washington, D.C., he wasn't quite sure what to make of it. As captain and choreographer of the Punjabi folk dance group Bhangra Empire, Mirza is used to leading the troupe in high-octane performances and winning major competitions. But this was clearly something unusual.

“I called, and they told me it was an invitation to perform at the White House,” he said. The kicker: The performance would be in less than a week on November 24 for a state dinner hosted by President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama for India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his wife Gursharan Kaur. Time being of the essence, the White House wanted Mirza to confirm by the next day.

He started making calls to other members of the dance team. They thought he was pulling a fast one. Even Michelle Puneet Gill '05, who co-founded the troupe while a senior at SCU, didn't believe it was for real. “I got the call from him on my lunch break and thought he was joking,” said Gill, who works at a mortgage company. “It was unreal. It didn't really hit me until our plane landed in D.C. Even then, it felt too good to be true.”

Superbowl champs

In the few years since Bhangra Empire was founded, the 20-member dance group has placed first at seven local and national competitions. They've won the Bruin Bhangra otherwise known as the Super Bowl of bhangra and they've performed as the opening act for major Indian pop stars like Jazzy B and Miss Pooja, and wowed the 15,000-strong crowd at the Unforgettable Tour starring Bollywood superstar Aishwarya Rai and heartthrob Amitabh Bachchan.

All of that pales, though, in comparison to their “performance of a lifetime” at Obamas' first state dinner. How did they get there? The group was selected by a staff member of the Office of the First Lady who had seen their eight-minute award-winning performance from Bruin Bhangra 2009 on YouTube.
A taste of India

In the run-up to their White House debut, the group practiced in the Bay Area all day Saturday and Sunday. They caught a red-eye flight on Monday, and were fine-tuning their act all the way up to their six-minute performance at 9:30 p.m. on Tuesday.

“We had to make a lot of adjustments to our routine,” recalled Gill. “We usually dance on 40-to-45 wide stages that are 30-to-35 deep, but the stage at the White House would be 30-foot by 10-foot and we could only have 10 dancers instead of 12.”

Unfazed by the challenges, the group took the stage in a vaulted tent performing their high-energy routine accompanied by two chimta (cymbal) players and a dholi (drummer). The high point of the performance? “There is a sound bite in the music that says 'tell them where we're from' where we dropped our vests and the back of our kurtas (shirts) spelled out PUNJAB,” Mirza said. “President Obama came by afterwards and said 'You really got us with that Punjab bit.'”

The president also shook each group member's hand, asked all of their names, and even attempted a few Bhangra moves with the group before taking a picture with the team.

Mirza said the group liked being a bit of a surprise for the high-powered crowd whereas the VIPs were generally familiar with the night's other performers: singer Jennifer Hudson, the National Symphony Orchestra, Grammy-winning composer A.R. Rahman who wrote the theme for "Slumdog Millionaire" and Chicago jazz vocalist Kurt Elling.

“I felt that we were bridging the cultural gap between the U.S. and India,” said Gill. “We were representing a piece of Indian culture as Americans and helping President Obama showcase this to the prime minister of India.”

Among those who congratulated the group on their performance were Hollywood director M. Night Shyamalan, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, CNN health correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta, and actor Alfre Woodard.

“It was incredibly overwhelming for me,” said Gill, “especially because I have been a part of this team from the very beginning…to know exactly where we started to where we had arrived was unbelievable. It still feels like a dream.”


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