Dancing with (and Under) the Stars

It is 10 p.m. on a Thursday, and the energy level cannot exceed the energy level at the top of the parking garage H on UCF’s campus. Foot stump on concrete. wooden sticks (called) dandiya) clap together. Two dozen students juggle and stretch their hands toward the constellations, syncing to a fast-paced musical number. If you pay enough attention you can see that they are telling a story with their moves.

Some surprised officers from the UCF Police Department have come to see what’s going on and when the music stops, applauds and greets. “You are amazing.”

Apart from competitions and special festivals, the terrace is the best place to witness this kind of choreography. It’s called garba-raas, or just raas, and keeps South Asian culture very alive wherever it is performed – in college auditoriums across the country or in a wide open parking lot at UCF.

“We go to the top of the garage because we can keep it all late at night,” says Rushil Patel, a civil engineering student and captain of the Nitrous team. “The air is fresh too.”

The UCF’s NightRush team is one of 60 collegiate squads that compete nationwide in a circuit called the Ras All-Stars. These include the University of Virginia Huras, the University of Miami Swaggers, and the Georgia Tech Ramblin Ras. Raas All-Stars was founded in 2009 to preserve an important South Asian tradition for college students, which for most dancers is embedded in their ancestry.

“Being in this team means a lot to my family,” says Esan Patel (no relation to Rashil). His mother immigrated from India to America at the age of 16, and the father did the same at the age of 20. After the wedding and soon, they took her to the Diwali and Navratri festivals in Jacksonville to understand the importance of the family background. , As a UCF freshman, Ason watched some videos of nitrous, which brought back childhood memories.

“I learned about ras at festivals,” says Ason. “But as a teenager I became interested in other things and lost touch with the culture, including dance. When I learned that UCF had a LS team, I saw it as an opportunity to reconnect with my heritage.

Athleticism adds another layer of appeal. Ason says that at first he had trouble learning the tempo and complexities of competitive dances, but he made the team because of his passion for the rasa.

“We practice about 10 hours a week,” Rushil says, “so we look for people who are ready to push themselves and put in the work.”

Rushil was born in Mumbai, India and moved to America with his family before his first birthday. He played football and basketball, but his parents regularly took Rushil and his older brother to the Indian Association near their home in Palm Beach County (there are more than 40 Indian associations throughout Florida), where a family friend had Taught him the traditional Raas dance. Rushil’s troupe performed at annual festivals, but it wasn’t until his brother began competing at the University of Florida.

“The moves he taught me were faster and more powerful than they were growing up,” says Rushil. “That’s when I decided to focus my athletic attention on Ras. I thought that one day I would captain my college team to the national championship.

He has been the captain of the Nitras since 2019, a year before the team began competing on the All-Stars circuit. During the 2022 season ending in April, he told the story of a treasure hunt through his six-minute routine, traveling to locations in Atlanta, Austin, Texas, and Champagne, Illinois. For the season they are 11. finishedth In the country – just outside the top-8 who qualify for the national championship.

“We are still relatively new to competition,” Rushil says, “but the group is fired up about the prospect of making it to the nationals next season.”

Virtually nothing is given to the nitras dancers. They practice at the parking garage. They raise money so that they can afford to sleep five to six people in one room while they travel. Earlier this year he collected a few hundred dollars on a series of recorded dares for Instagram: drink a shot of hot sauce, do the ice-bucket challenge, and then enter a ras routine in front of the reflecting pond on campus.

“Courage brings awareness to the fact that UCF has a team and is an important part of our South Asian culture,” says Ason. “A side benefit is that every time we dance, it brings us closer together as a family than as a team.”

History professor Rochisha Narayan exemplifies the whole experience about “investment in cultural practices that arouse curiosity and lead to reflection on what is understood as one’s heritage”.

When the members of Nitras aren’t bonding over the clean air at Garage H, they’re sometimes adding in the scent of a potluck dinner. Each member of the team brings a dish to represent the region in India their family is from, accompanied by a spicy-scented potpourri in one’s apartment.

“I would love to pass on these traditions to the generations to come, just as they have been passed on to us,” says Rushil. “But first, I really want to win a national championship.”

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