Bollywood has produced another blockbuster.
Meryl Davis and Charlie White’s unique, Indian-themed original dance is a hit all over the globe, with people from Michigan to Mumbai — many of whom don’t know the first thing about ice dancing — raving about the program and forwarding videos of it to family and friends. One video alone on YouTube has racked up over 210,000 views, astronomical numbers for a figure skating program.
“It’s very cool,” Davis said. “Charlie and I have always been excited about being different and embracing what we could bring to the sport. It’s really exciting to expand the fan base, and expand the fan base to parts of the world that haven’t really experienced it before.”
For the original dance, skaters are given a prescribed rhythm — a tango, for example — but can use any music or choreography that falls under that rhythm. This season, folk/country dance was chosen for the OD.
Although many skaters opt for American country — the Vancouver Games might give new meaning to the term dueling banjoes — or Spanish music, choreographer Marina Zoueva wanted something that would really make Davis and White stand out.
When she spotted an Hermes scarf with brilliant colors and Indian dancers last spring, she knew she’d found the answer.
“I thought, ‘My God, that is Meryl and Charlie’s original dance,'” said Zoueva, who has worked with the reigning U.S. champions for the last seven years. “I saw Meryl in that dance right away.”
Davis and White loved the idea. The two have interests that reach far beyond their sport (their parents used to take them on cultural “field trips” when they traveled to competitions, and Davis is an anthropology major at Michigan) and they were eager to expose themselves to a culture they didn’t know much about.
But they didn’t want to simply play characters on the ice. If they were going to do this, they were going to do it right.
They called Anuja Rajendra, who combines Bollywood music and dance with exercise at her BollyFit studio in Ann Arbor, Mich. Rajendra, who once performed professionally, not only showed them how to move their arms and bodies in true Indian dance style, she suggested music and taught them about Indian culture.
“It was important for us to be able to get into the character and be able to understand why we’re doing the moves we’re doing and what it represents,” White said. “It definitely makes it easier to get across to the audience and judges if you know what you’re doing and why doing it.
“Also, it was interesting, stuff we weren’t familiar with at all.”
Davis and White took the moves Rajendra showed them back to Zoueva, who incorporated them into the program. Then, once Zoueva had finished choreographing the OD, which uses music from the 2002 Bollywood hit “Devdas,” Rajendra went to the rink to make sure authentic Indian dance could translate onto the ice.
“The dancing itself off the ice is quite tough,” Rajendra said. “To maintain the grace but also the athleticism on the ice, it’s remarkable.”
With Davis in a red, gold and blue sari-like costume and White in a long tan coat with jeweled cuffs, the confidence and grace of their arm movements and footwork transport fans to India. They perform with such ease it’s easy to forget they’re doing a competitive program and not celebrating at a wedding or other formal occasion.
“It’s exactly suited for them,” Zoueva said. “I don’t think any other team could do this.”
Davis and White tested out their OD at a competition in Germany in October, and Zoueva said all the feedback she heard was positive.
But that was nothing compared to the public’s reaction.
Videos of programs are posted all the time, but they’re usually only of interest to skating fans. Somehow, though, Davis and White’s OD began circulating among people in India or with ties to South Asia.
Check the statistics on the OD videos that have been posted on YouTube, and most of the views are by people in India. The program is mentioned on several Web sites celebrating Indian culture. Some of Rajendra’s own friends even got e-mails from people in India, telling them they had to check out these American ice dancers.
Like most winter sports, skating isn’t very big in India. But people there were impressed — and proud — that American skaters were showcasing their culture.
“This is the new world……of globalization! I am so proud of my heritage! way to go!!,” one person who watched the video on YouTube wrote.
“It makes me feel good that something Indian is being shown,” said Dr. Shekar Pushpala, a doctor in Indianapolis who was sent the video by a friend in India.
By the end of October, eight or nine people had sent Usman Ahmed links to the video, urging him to post it on his “My Life is Desi” Web site, which is devoted to South Asian culture.
“It’s just the fact that the South Asian culture is now blending in,” Ahmed said of the enthusiastic reaction. “When people who are not South Asian are doing something related to that, it becomes a big deal.
“They had to go do a lot of research,” he added. “It was really nice, seeing that.”
Davis and White realized they had a crossover hit on their hands when White saw about 20,000 people had viewed the OD video from Rostelecom Cup, their first Grand Prix event. The numbers continued to climb, and videos from other competitions also have proven popular.
The judges like the program, too. Davis and White have easily won the OD portion of every competition they’ve been in this year, including setting a personal best at the Grand Prix final earlier this month.
After winning the title at the Grand Prix final, they’re firmly in the mix for a medal in Vancouver. And while they’ll represent the United States, they can count on support from another country, too.
“There’s a certain level of respect due when you attempt something like this,” Davis said. “We wanted to make sure we did the program justice.”
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