Dance is Me
Written by: Ryan Ramsahoye & Tasneem Yassen
Sunday June 4, 2023
As my eyes opened on a Saturday morning, I could already hear the bhajans, or the latest bollywood soundtrack coming from the stereo. This was my alarm clock. Growing up, music was always around me. I remember spending Sunday afternoons as a child by my grandparents house in Ajax watching Bollywood movies and music videos with all my cousins as our parents socialized in the other room.
Dance has played an important role in my life. I grew up in a very musically and artistically inclined family. I began dancing at a very young age . At first, I was just performing as part of family functions. Dance was just something I tolerated since it was a fun way to hang out with my family and spend more time together. But as I aged, I slowly started to realize how I was able to express myself through dance in ways words never could. Over time it developed into a passion that allowed me to learn more about who I was and fully understand my culture and heritage.
Dance, music and culture have always been intertwined, with dance serving as a reflection of the values, beliefs, and traditions of a particular society. These values and traditions were then passed down to me along the various generations, starting with my grandparents, then my mom and then down to me. For people of the West Indian diaspora living abroad, music and dance were a way to connect to their roots while navigating a foreign country. Through my parents and grandparents I learned about the great playback singers of Indian cinema. We would listen to Mukesh, Muhamed Rafi, Lata Mangeshkar, Kishore Kumar and Lakshmikant-Pyarelal almost religiously. On the weekends, we would rent the latest Bollywood movies and I would admire the likes of Madhuri, Sri Devi, Shah Rukh Khan, Govinda and Prabhudeva. It was in moments like this that my love of Indian music and cinema developed and blossomed. By just listening to a minute of a song I can tell you the movie, starring actors and playback singers. This “skill” developed into a trivia game competition amongst the family to see who could name the movie and actors first. Evidently showing the importance of Indian film and music as a pillar in our creation of art and sense of identity. The Indo-Guyanese community relied heavily on the Indian film and music industries, as Guyana did not have one of its own.
While Indian music and Indian cinema played a very important part in my upbringing, the influence of Hindu culture cannot be discounted. Growing up we were taught to sing bhajans and film songs, and play instruments. My fondest memories are of when we held jhandi and satsaang with my large extended family. Here I watched my uncles, aunties and cousins sing bhajans and film songs, dance and play instruments. Through these experiences, along with the many rituals and celebrations my mother and grandparents took us to at the mandir, I got to witness the culture within the Indo-Caribbean community. It was in these settings that I understood who we are uniquely and could appreciate the richness of our heritage that our ancestors through immense adversity carried from India to Guyana and now Canada. This is where I saw dancers who looked like me and my family perform, where I heard the distinctive sounds of dholak, and dhantaal, where I witnessed chowtaal, where I heard Taan singing. These moments taught me the importance of participating in music and dance. It taught me to be grateful towards our ancestors and their struggles to carry the culture and traditions forward.
Growing up with these traditions and values in a western society made for some challenges as it wasn’t always easy to connect to my peers. At school I was just another brown kid, yet I didn’t quite fit in with my South Asian friends as I didn’t speak Hindi or Punjabi. We shared similar values and experiences based on our cultural upbringings yet there was still a barrier that separated me, the “West-Indian” from the Indian. It was through dance that I was able to find like minded people and others in the Caribbean community who had similar values to me and shared in my experience. At last I found a place where I could belong.
Through dance I was able to find myself. There was no longer that external expectation. I was free to let go and be me. I was able to express myself thoroughly … and better yet to the music I loved. Dance has provided me with so many opportunities in my life. I was able to connect with people I would not have met otherwise. Now being given a platform to share my passion with others I am able to find like minded people and continue to pass on the traditions and values that were taught to me via this beautiful art form. We owe it to the youth, who in this vast multicultural country, need to know who they are and where they come from.
I was recently asked “what does dance mean to you” and I had to pause for a minute. How could I even begin to answer this question? Dance is my everything. Every time I perform, I remember those family functions, the weekends filled with movies and music, and the joy it brings to my family to see their traditions being upheld. When executing my “chakar” spins I know I have found a place where I belong. Dance is my outlet. I dance to show my happiness. I dance to pour out the negativity and pain. Dance is with me from the time I wake to the time I sleep. Whether it is me just vibing to music on the radio on the way to work, silently choreographing in my head, or me busting out a move while on the dance floor, dance is ingrained into every aspect of who I have become. Dance is what grounds me to my beliefs and my culture. Dance is me, I am Dance.
This article was originally published by the Vedic Cultural Centre. It has been republished on Story by the Indo-Caribbean Canadian Association with permission from the authors.
About the Author
Ryan Ramsahoye (Lead Choreographer at ELITE / SuperStarz Classes) is an elementary and middle school French teacher with a passion for dance and the arts. After taking a hiatus from dance during University, Ryan began coaching a competitive dance team through work which helped to reignite his inner dancer. Since then, he has choreographed several items for The Toronto Kiwanis Dance festival where he has received 5 Gold medals for his choreography. He specializes in Bollywood and Semi-Classical dance styles and has recently been training in Kathak.
About the Author
Tasneem Yassen (Lead Choreographer at ELITE / Starz Classes) has been learning and performing different genres of dance for the last 15 years in the GTA. She specializes in Indian fusion and Bollywood semi-classical. Tasneem has had many enriching experiences that range from music videos, competitions, award shows, pageantry, and various community events. When not dancing Tasneem takes pride in her career as a social worker in the province of Ontario and her role as a counselor to youth across Canada with Kids Help Phone.