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"We dance to express, not impress” - Puja Amin story as told to Shipra Chaudhury

The downtown dance studio was buzzing with the latest Bollywood music and ardent adults participating in rigorous fitness moves, creating warmth that was in total contrast with the outside cold and chilly Canadian winter. It is here that I met Puja Amin, the thirty-something Artistic Director of ‘Sanskriti Ensemble’ and her team of dedicated instructors at a studio in Toronto. “The word ‘Sanskriti’ means culture. Sanskriti Arts exists to spread culture and ethnicity through traditional and contemporary dance and music performances.

 

Our fuel is passion for the performing arts and we dance to express, not impress,” were the introductory words of Amin. She continued, “Canada is a diverse society, and Sanskriti Arts invites cross-cultural participation to raise awareness and increase knowledge about dance and culture for Canadians. We also try to help second-generation immigrants and first-generation Canadians to stay connected with their cultural roots.”

Armed with a degree in physiotherapy, Amin landed in Toronto in 2003. While waiting to get her license, she continued to follow her passion as a dancer. Said Amin, “Dance had never been my way of earning a living; it was more a passion that had to be pursued. After landing here, I joined Joanna Das, the renowned Kathak instructor to enhance my Kathak dance education with her. Side by side I also got in touch with some major South Asian Event Committees in the city. It was then I realized that nothing works without footage and photos.” Having said that, Amin agrees that her strong background in classical training and attending various international folk dance workshops was a solid backup for establishing herself as a successful choreographer. “Choreography was something I really enjoyed because it really helped my creative energy focus and grow. Dancing, for me, was a unique way of expressing myself of how I felt when I heard a piece of music,” she said. By this time, her full time working and choreographing were way too much pressure to continue, and so passion got the upper hand! With full support from her husband, she was fortunate enough to follow her dreams and since then, there was no looking back!

But how does she amalgamate Bollywood music in her ‘Sanskriti Ensemble’ regime? Continued Amin, “While focusing on choreography, I realized that Bollywood music just integrates everything. In fact, dance acts as a great ice-breaker! Many a party or social gathering can be transformed from a dull and boring social obligation into a fun few hours of dance and music. Not only does it provide opportunities to meet new people, it also increases self-confidence, builds social skills, reduces stress and tension and gives an overall sense of well-being. Having a good dance vocabulary gave me a lot of freedom in expressing different music through different dance patterns and expressions. I loved teaching as much as I loved learning, as both are like two sides of a coin and hence, inseparable.”This led to the birth of ‘Bollycore Fitness ’in Toronto, bringing together students with a passion for dance and extreme drive to explore their potential. Added Amin, “Bollycore Fitness strives to bring together people from all ages and diverse cultural backgrounds through the expressive-art-form of dance. We strive to create a universal platform, where health and wellness can be enhanced through dance, yoga and movement, and where boundaries are dissolved to create cultural inclusion.”Besides, Bollycore also teaches various forms of South Asian dances at beginner, intermediate and advance levels. They have classes for Kathak, Bollywood, Bhangra, Garba-Raas, Maharashtrian Lavani and Koli, Rajasthani Ghoomar and fusion. They offer custom programs in Yoga (Hatha, Kundalini and Vinyasa) for individuals and small groups and Full Body Boot Camps! Last but not least, they have their junior and senior professional development (PD) program for aspiring individuals who intend to make a career teaching and performing dance and fitness classes!

Having a degree in Physiotherapy has helped Amin to develop these Bollycore Dance classes. Said she, “Bollycore dance fitness is a great introduction to Bollywood dance and music. The class focus’ to improve and increase muscle coordination and heart rate, strength and stamina, posture and poise, balance and breathing, and of course, not to forget the burning of calories! When I started teaching dance to various age groups, including seniors, I realized that breaking down dance movements into components was actually helping my students to understand better the muscle and joint movements.” According to her, the side-to-side movements and patterns executed in class, strengthen the weight bearing bones and can help prevent or slow loss of bone mass (osteoporosis). If one is recovering from heart or knee surgery, movement may be part of the rehabilitation program. In fact, Bollycore dance fitness is a positive alternative to aerobic dance or jogging. She added, “In our Bollycore fitness routine, we try to coordinate movements using various parts of our body like feet, arms, neck, hand, and torso all at once, and playing with the rhythm cycle can be a fantastic brain stimulator. When an individual introduces their body to working out or any other physical activity, building onto muscle strength with props such as weights and bands could cause injuries very easily. In this fitness program, we use our body weight to heal our body, to gain muscle strength and tone, to eliminate chances for injury. In simple words, we work on a basic principal; if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it!”She chuckled, continuing, “Once the classes get over, we are all rolling in sweat, have crazy smiles on our faces and have this sense of immense satisfaction within us. I started to conduct these classes with more and more individuals who were new to dance, but didn’t want to stress about having to rehearse their routines once they left our studios. Their only motive was feeling happy and having fun. I understood how they felt because I had this mad adrenaline rush after teaching every class because I was doing what a loved to do most, and that is dance!”

Amin received the Kesri Youth Award 2005 in Canada for appreciation of support and help to impact and make a difference in the lives of youth. Her Bollywood Bhangra workshops are a ‘Dhamaka’ and part of most multicultural projects such as Urban Noise and programs with the Soulpepper Theatre Company. Continued Amin, “The Soulpepper Theatre Company remains to be one off my favorite groups with whom I have done short series of workshops pending in presentations. I started teaching at their youth mentor-ship program where I was a guest instructor teaching the kids Bollywood Bhangra and the dance was going to be part of the Roman play to express the celebrations at the end of the war scene.” This was an eye-opener as one could see the attractive amalgamation of South Asian dance forms with the mainstream theatre, music and dance. Here she admits that she learnt a lot from the students, the teachers and the organization itself! She has also conducted Indian Dance Workshops at the Black Creek Pioneer Village, Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto Street Festival at Dundas Square, various schools, dance centers and International Conventions. 

Though Amin won a special prize called ‘Inside Out,’ at the International Dance Challenge in Toronto, she didn’t sound super keen on competitions.“As much as I see the benefits of the children being motivated towards a final project and I do recognize that healthy competition can be a very good learning process and a great way for you to realize your stand in terms of your ability and skill as an individual or as a team, I just don't like the stress it brings to kids and the pressure while dancing,” she added, continuing, “International Dance Challenge in Toronto was a competition my kids wanted to participate and we decided to put in two entries, one adult and one junior category. I particularly liked this competition because it judged each item individually and not against somebody else. Out of 82 groups, we were one of the eight chosen for the final entertainment challenge and it came as a surprise at the end of the awards ceremony, when they announced a special prize to me called ‘Inside Out.’ This award was for a person who could make her participants convey their feelings through movement, face and body language! Our team received the gold and our junior team received the silver! It was a great learning experience for me and my team!” she gleamed.

Was there anything in particular that Amin wanted her students to know about what she teaches? “Joy of course!” she said, continuing, “There is so much joy in dancing! I ask my students to look at their hands when they dance for ‘where the hands there the eyes, where the eyes there the mind, where the mind there the heart, where the heart there the feelings and where the feelings there dwells the audience, there the satisfaction!”

Any role models in life? Amin adds, “Most of my role models are people who have been in and around my life growing up. I admire a lot of dancers and their skills, but I've never wanted to dance like somebody. I've always wanted to dance in a way that made me feel complete.”What she enjoys most about Canada in its cultural diversity, freedom of movement and that everybody can come here and make it their own. “There is so much to give and so much more to get!” were her concluding words!

My name is Shipra Chaudhury.  Born and raised in Kolkata, I began my professional career by graduating with masters from Jadavpur University, which led me to numerous teaching opportunities. Soon I moved to Dubai, to start my freelancing career for Gulf News, one of the leading newspaper in the Gulf. In 2001, I moved to Toronto with my family and have made this lovely city my home!

Besides teaching in the private sector, I have continued to be a freelancing journalist, writing for community newspapers and magazines here.

I love to read in my free time as that broadens my horizon. Dancing is also my hobby as I love to be fit and healthy. Another hobby that I enjoy pursuing is gardening......it helps me to be one with Mother Nature.

Comments  

 
#2 anna82 2015-03-02 13:09
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#1 anna82 2015-02-27 07:30
I can recommend African Mango, it helped me a lot.
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