By Vidya Pradhan
The scene is now a pretty familiar one in the Bay Area. A group of would-be Bollywood dancers waits patiently as the instructor performs the move of a well know Hindi film song. Then the dancers attempt to mimic the instructor with varying degrees of success. What’s different? All the dancers are between 60 and 75 years old and the best of them perform in a dancing troupe known as ‘Jollywood’!
Gopi Godhwani, whose sons started the India Community Center(ICC) in Milpitas, runs the senior center. In 2005, she was approached by Talat Hassan, the director of ICC to organize some kind of performance by the seniors for the upcoming ICC banquet. After rejecting the idea of a skit because of the length involved, Gopi Aunty, as she is affectionately called, wondered if the seniors could put on a Bollywood dance for the event.
The initial reaction to her idea was mixed, to say the least. Even the ICC dance director and choreographer Mona Sampath wondered if there would be an audience for such a show. So the plans were temporarily shelved. But since the dancers had already begun rehearsing, Gopi Aunty decided not to tell them, as it would break their hearts. Eventually, with support from Ms. Hassan, the seniors decided to brave the audience and perform.
To everybody’s astonishment, the show received a standing ovation from the over 700 guests at the banquet and made grown men’s eyes moist at the energy and enthusiasm shown by the sprightly sixty-somethings.
Since then, the Jollywood troupe has performed at various other events both within and outside the Indian community. They have even been invited to the Fremont Senior center for a fundraising event.
The seniors in the Bollywood dance classes have mostly come to help out their busy working children in the US. For most of them this is the first opportunity in their lives to go up on stage and display their talent. But they are the exception to the typical grandmother or grandmother brought over from India to be unpaid babysitters.
“Why don’t children understand that their parents have so much hidden talent?” asks Gopi Aunty sadly. She recounts the instance of an artistic friend of hers who broke down when she was able to dance at the center for the first time. Her children were completely unaware that she had many artistic talents. They were also very uncomfortable with seeing their mother perform, refusing to look at a video of her dance. “We are so busy raising our children that we submerge all our natural talents during a large chunk of our life,” adds Gopi Aunty. She has made it her mission to reach as many Indian seniors as possible and make it possible for them to develop their long repressed talents and interests at the ICC.
They respond with overwhelming enthusiasm. Dagmara Avanindra is the instructor for Bollywood dance. She has taught all age groups but the seniors are her favorite because of their commitment to the program. “While they are here, they are fully in the moment, nothing else exists for them.” The movements are tailored to accommodate the restrictions that come with age. There is a lot of emphasis on bold and sweeping hand movements. The leg movements are low impact to take care of bad knees. The formations are kept simple and there is minimal use of props. During the rehearsals, chairs are kept at the back of the studio for the dancers to take a break if they feel tired.
I asked Mona if the seniors were comfortable with the suggestive movements so typical of Bollywood dance. “I give them moves that show attitude,” she responds. “They love choreography that shows ‘josh’. It brings out the younger side of them.
For a number based on the theme from ‘Don’, Mona dressed the men in leather jackets with studs. and black sunglasses. The ladies wore Mumtaz style salway kameezes with draped scarves and big white sunglasses. “The seniors’ first reaction when they see the costumes is always to run and hide!” laughs Mona. “They’ll say, ‘Kya kar rahi ho, what will our grandchildren think.’ They are not so concerned about their children’s reaction!”
“The key is to rehearse and make sure that they have worn the costume several times and are comfortable. They do a demo in front of the ICC staff and they get encouraged,” adds Mona. The outstanding response that the Jollywood performances get amazes her. “It is not easy to get an Indian audience up on their feet. None of my Naach shows ever got one!”
Ravi Chopra is the lone man in the troupe. He and his wife both dance for Jollywood. “It is a fantastic experience,” he says. “You feel energetic and young. When the public applauds, it gives you so much joy.” It is also a bonding experience for the couple to share a hobby.
The Jollywood troupe, which consists of 14-15 people, will perform for the Summer Naach Mania show organized by the Naach company. “We refuse many more invitations than we accept,” says Mona who is concerned about the seniors over-exerting themselves. But the seniors are enthusiastic. Sometimes they perform at ICC events without her knowledge! Whenever they get a chance, they practice all the numbers they have learnt so far and keep up with the choreography.
Jollywood is the public face of the success of the senior center of the ICC. Being involved has changed people’s lives and cured many of depression. One senior left this feedback – ‘ICC is like India Community Therapy Center for me. I have a number of ailments, but when I come here I forget about my illness and have a great time’.
“We want more people to join and benefit from the many programs that ICC has to offer seniors,” says Gopi Aunty. All programs are free and a shuttle bus service makes it possible for members who do not drive to make it to classes.
To learn more about the facilities that ICC has to offer, check out their website or contact Gopi Godhwani at email@example.com. The senior center can also be reached at 1 408 934 1130 x 24.