Students dance their way to cultural appreciation

Students dance their way to cultural appreciation


Written by: Bianca Brigitte Bonomi

Two UK schools have embraced Bollywood in an attempt to open up cultural conversation amongst students and to encourage the exploration of cultural difference.


The Reel Bollywood initiative, run by British Asian Chix Chandaria, aimed to discover whether exposing students to an unfamiliar culture and involving them in that culture would result in a change in attitudes and perceptions. The two schools chosen for the project were located in Luton and Hull, whilst similar projects were run in Newham and Holborn. Hull was of particular interest to the researchers, as unlike Luton, situated in close proximity to London, it is a fairly homogenous, predominantly White area, with relatively little diversity or integration. Many of the participants in Hull, aged between 17 and 18 and drawn from a performing arts diploma course, had had little contact with people from non-White backgrounds. The students worked with a film choreographer, director, music producer and a film company to produce an original short film, combining elements of Bollywood with personal interpretation. For the project, the participants were required not merely to learn, but to inhabit the dance moves central to South Asian dance. The researchers were keen to find out whether this level of immersion in a dance, that is effectively an embodiment of a South Asian cultural movement, would result in changed attitudes towards cultural difference and whether inhabiting an unfamiliar culture through the medium of dance would make the students feel more empathy with people from that culture. They also sought to discover ‘whether the process of creating a narrative through film changed attitudes through a different kind of personal identification and how filming someone dancing contributes to an individual’s notion of identity’. The project relied on the benefits of digital media arts and throughout the course, new technology (Transana) was used to analyse movement. The researchers revisited the college after six months in order to conduct interviews with students, parents and teachers and to watch documentary footage of the students, in order to elicit whether there had been any longer-term changes in cultural perceptions.

Why Bollywood?

Bollywood is the informal name given to the popular Mumbai-based Hindi language film industry in India, but is often used by non-Indians to refer to the whole of Indian cinema. The high profile Bollywood genre was chosen by researchers for its mass appeal, energy and apparent attractiveness to young people. The intricate and precise dances of Bollywood offered a fresh and exciting challenge to the performing arts students. As one student explained: ‘Every movement is significant and has its own meaning’, so an understanding of the history, background and norms of Bollywood and how they relate to British and South Asian culture, is a compulsory prelude to performance. This multi-faceted approach to dance also enhanced the experience for students: ‘It wasn’t just learning a routine. We were taught how to do it and what it meant and why, whereas with other people you have a short amount of time, so it’s just “learn the routine now”.’ Another student commented that ‘the little things like the hands really made me feel at ease, because I thought, “I actually understand what I’m doing now”.’ The students were asked to interpret this information and explore it through the development of short films, which reflected their understanding of the genre and enabled them to contribute to the creative output of the public performance, which for many marked the climax of the course.


The project was a largely positive experience for the students, who engaged with the teaching and were highly motivated throughout. The fact that they were studying towards a performance diploma meant that the theatrical aspects of the dance engaged with their vocational aspirations. The researchers grouped the different kinds of learning into three groups: ‘shallow’, involving memorisation, ‘deep’, involving reflection, and ‘profound’, involving intuition, with each level being appropriate to different aspects of the project. The results show that whilst there was evidence of shallow learning, in terms of repeating dance moves and memorising them, there was less evidence of learning at a deep or profound level, necessary for cultural understanding. Some students did, however, express a greater empathy towards South Asian culture after the project and many expressed positive reactions to the movements that they were taught.

Cultural difference

In order to discover if the Bollywood experience had altered the students’ cultural awareness and views, researchers relied on the performers’ self-perception and on the information provided by teachers and parents. The results show that the aim of improving cultural awareness did enjoy a level of success. Students expressed ‘more confidence’ in communicating with people from other cultures. Prior to the performance, some students showed concern and embarrassment about the fact that there would be Asian people in the audience. This kind of anxiety and fear of insulting another culture is referred to as ‘impostor syndrome’, but the researchers noted that following the encouraging response from the crowd, the students felt relieved and positive about their experience. The students also benefited from a ‘safe space’, where they could discuss issues of cultural difference and race. At the end of the project, researchers found that students were more ready to ask questions on areas of cultural difference, without feeling embarrassed.

The researchers noted, however that ‘there were questions as to how much the project had encouraged the students to apply what they had learnt in relation to diversity within the context of the reality of their lives, with the suggestion that the experience was abstracted, rather than producing profound change’. In addition, whilst researchers had identified the predominately White area of Hull as being of particular interest in terms of promoting cultural understanding, residents did not believe that cultural difference was a concern in the region. One teacher explained: ‘Issues of cultural difference are not so relevant here, we are culturally quite cut off and don’t have many minorities here. I think that race and cross-cultural concerns have not really been issues with the students or with me, as we have never had a problem with it.’

Yet despite this view, Hull was branded the ‘most racist city in the Yorkshire and Humberside region’ in a report published in July 2005 and produced by Professor Gary Craig, the University of Hull’s Chair of Social Justice. The city was recognised as having a problem with racial intolerance and being ‘forty years behind’ similar cities in terms of acceptance and tolerance of other cultures. The report reveals an unwillingness to acknowledge racism in the city and ‘a casual acceptance’ of racist behaviour and language. Whilst the report makes clear that the majority of residents are not racist, it highlights a growing minority who threaten to prevent progress in the city, citing the BNP’s identification of the area as a possible future stronghold, as a particular concern.

Students in Hull were particularly positive about the process through which they learnt more about cultural difference. By immersing themselves in the history of another culture and by inhabiting the physical movements of that culture, they became active participants in the learning process. The films produced by the two schools have been shown at festivals around the country and a promotional DVD documenting the work of the students is being circulated around educational institutions in an attempt to ‘share the practice and learning, which has been drawn from discussions about cultural difference, with other educators, funders and practitioners in cultural work’. It is hoped that more schemes like the Reel Bollywood initiative will be launched later in the year.

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The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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