A Cinematic Calorie Burner

Bollywood dancing is a new workout that’s springing up in some unlikely places. Far from the sound stages of Mumbai, Long Island exercisers are getting a cultural education along with a cardio session in Bollywood fitness classes. Since I couldn’t manage a trip to India, I went to the local source of Hindi culture, Hicksville, to experience my first Bollywood fitness class at BollyArts.

The instructor and dance director Zol was the only male in the packed dance room but the women spanned generations and fitness levels. Zol is a lifelong lover of dance who brought his cultural knowledge and passion for fitness to Long Island when he moved here from India several years ago. The onetime Bollywood model has a bold, beautiful and boisterous stage presence that helped the class attendees get into the spirit of Bollywood. The style is all about big moves and dramatic body art, making it a perfect cardio choice.

The class was filled with regulars who had been attending for years. As Zol demonstrated the short sequences, a mix of classical Bollywood and American hip-hop dance moves, the dancers knew the drill: Watch Zol’s combinations of footwork, arm and hand positioning and then jump right in. As the hour-long class went on, the dance sequences grew in intensity and fun. We jumped, moved our hips, threw up our arms and even did a traveling squat jump punctuated with collective yells of “HA!” If that doesn’t sound fun to you, rent some Bollywood blockbusters on Netflix, have a drink or two and try to tell me you didn’t gyrate around the living room, hands curled in the air.

For a first-timer I thought I was doing pretty well, until an experienced dancer asked me, sympathetically, if I was new. Apparently I was holding my hands wrong and Bollywood dancing is all about the hands: Emotion and even religious meaning are expressed through the elaborate movement of fingers, palms, wrists and arms. For this class, Zol kept the hand motions relatively simple and emphasized big, full body moves to get our hearts pumping.

The music was celebratory and the energy was pulsating. Strobe lights helped set a party mood and many of the women who came week after week confided in me that this was a great escape from their mundane domestic and professional responsibilities. There was an aerobic element but it was never rote or overly serious. The medicine was going down with a major spoonful of sugar, but it was a serious workout. Many of the dancers were sweaty and happy to take a short break halfway through the class.

Zol reminisced that when he came to BollyArts four years ago many of the women from the surrounding Indian community who showed up to the traditional dancing classes were sedentary, which inspired him to develop the fitness dance program.

“These women hadn’t moved their whole lives,” he said. “I’ve seen them improve their stamina, their posture, their confidence.”

Though it took a little getting used to, the choreography was never too complicated for a slow learner like me to follow. Zol had a teacher’s knack for explaining the moves with his body (no one could hear him over the boisterous Hindi music anyway) and as we repeated each sequence a few times, I had a chance to watch, learn and improve.

Zol also teaches at Stony Brook University to a mostly American group and he explained that the students pick up on the movement easily, often with little extra demonstration. But he maintains it’s not about exactitude, “I try to keep it fun, yet challenging enough that you can come back and keep getting better, but it’s not about being mechanical and perfect. It’s about the passion you bring to it.”

Sunita Sadhnani, owner of BollyArts, noted an increase in interest in the classes this year and has seen some new faces among the dedicated regulars who come from as far as Queens. Whether the trend traces its origins back to Slumdog Millionaire, or a few trendsetting New York City and Los Angeles gyms that were looking for the next interesting twist on Zumba and other dance workouts, the Bollywood craze has hit full force. There are several DVD series of Bollywood fitness workouts under different names like Doonya and The Masala Bhangra Workout. But at BollyArts, Sunita and Zol are committed to marrying the authentic with the modern with real life context. “We incorporate traditional holidays and bring in sticks to dance with on Navratri,” Zol offered as an example, referring to the Hindu October festival. The fitness regulars recently exercised with painted faces of Holi, the spring festival of colors.

For the shy, BollyArts offers small group lessons or a boot camp for a yoke of three dancers or less. But they’re not the only ones. Other gyms across the Island are starting to incorporate the trend into their schedules. Fitness Incentive in Babylon, for one, offers a Friday morning Bollywood Sweat class for groups.

At the BollyArts class, I came away energized and amazed that I never felt like the outsider I was. The atmosphere was welcoming and the attendees were very friendly. After all, a good dance party is a good dance party and jumping around in a room for an hour is a damn good workout, in any language.

You can find BollyArts online here: http://www.bollyarts.com/

Jacqueline Sweet

Jacqueline Sweet

Jacqueline Sweet is a freelance journalist and writer who covers local news and writes features for local and regional publications. She has published work in national magazines like Salute magazine, Family (military) magazine, Triathlete magazine, regional publications like Long Island Pulse and Long Island Parenting, and reported local news for online outlets like LongIslandWins.com and Patch.com. She has been covering health, wellness, fitness beauty, spa and travel for Long Island Pulse for several years.