Punjabi Cultural Society prepares dancers for harvest festival

Evelina Gaivoronskaia | Staff Writer

With the Vaisakhi harvest festival coming up on May 28, dance instructors in the Punjabi Cultural Society, like senior Nikky Soni, have been teaching young children the intricate steps of traditional styles like Bhangra.

The Punjabi Cultural Society (PCS) finds that dance, above all else, exposes children to Punjab culture better than other traditional forms of study.

A non-profit organization concentrating on passing the Punjabi culture to younger generations, PCS annually prepares for Vaisakhi, a Punjabi harvest festival, celebrated through traditional food and dances. This year, Vaisakhi falls on May 28.

The dances are performed by teams made up of children from ages of around six to nineteen. Senior Nikky Soni is a member of Gajdi Jawani, one of the ten dance teams inside PCS. While Gajdi Jawani consists of high school students, some of them also teach younger teams. Soni said she has been teaching children Bhangra, a traditional style, for three years.

“My first year I taught five to six year olds and they were actually having a lot of fun with the dances and getting control of their movements, but also learning about their culture,” Soni said. “Later on I taught 10 to 12-year-olds and they were more advanced in their dancing, so I was able to teach them harder skills and I grew as a dancer with them. A lot of those children will probably go on and take part in the high school team that I’m on right now.”

Soni said she combines contemporary dances with more traditional movements. The Punjabi music that Soni uses for her dances helps her students become more familiar with the language and expand their vocabulary.

“I know a lot of people are losing touch with their cultures, I feel it as well and I think dance has really helped me connect back to it,” Soni said.” These dance techniques that we’re doing right now are very similar to the ones our ancestors did, or our grandparents used to do, when they were back in Punjab or India.”

Senior Tina Sandhu’s family started PCS 19 years ago. During Vaisakhi, the Sandhu family is in charge of organizing the dance teams, registering and managing finances. Sandhu said by starting PCS, her family also takes part in keeping past traditions alive by making sure the children are just having fun.

 “Vaisakhi is a good tradition that we’ve done for the past 19 years and it’s something that we’ve kind of stuck with,” Sandhu said. “I like that everyone kind of looks forward to this. There’s no competition or anything, it’s just parents who come and see their kids perform on stage. It’s very relaxed and it’s just a fun experience for everyone.”

The teachers start preparing their teams four months prior to Vaisakhi. Sandhu said that although it can be stressful, they know the children come first. Being with PCS from the very beginning, Sandhu has witnessed many kids grow up and come back to teach or just kept up the culture in their families.

“We have kids that have been performing with us since they were four years old,” Sandhu said. “They go on and they perform for colleges, and now we even have their children coming and doing this.”

In her role as a dance instructor, Soni said the most difficult thing to teach is simply the complexity of the stepping.

“The hardest thing is just testing to see how far I can push them in terms of complexity of steps,” Soni said. “It’s super trial and error because, in my mind, I think the kids would be able to do some steps, but then I try it out and they’re completely lost so I have to go back and forth sometimes to simplify and meet them where they are in terms of skill.”

Overall, Soni said she can not help but feel prideful when she sees the kids she instructs succeeding on stage or just in public.

“I love when the kids I teach find me at random places, like Kroger or Walmart, and get super excited,” Soni said. “Once, one of the six-year-olds I was teaching saw me at Kroger and ran to get her mom and said ‘my teacher’s here!’ and she was super excited and gave me a hug. When I taught my first year and watched the kids (4-6 year olds) dancing on stage, I felt like a proud mom.”

Senior Rhea Khurana also teaches traditional dance and has been working with the same group of girls for several years. She said that the dancing goes beyond educating and into constructing these girls’ identity. 

“A lot of Indians come to America and I feel like every generation loses a little bit of the culture, but this organization is bringing it back,” Khurana said. “It is nice to have a little bit of that culture and uniqueness because it separates you from the person next to you. Everyone has a little bit that adds to their perspective and how they see the world.”

Photo by Evelina Gaivoronskaia.