“Gainesville Di Shaan. Swamp Di Jaan.”

“Pride of Gainesville. Life of the Swamp.”

Growing up as both a soccer player and a dancer, I always found myself in a tough situation when asked if I played a sport. Did I play two sports, or did soccer only count as a “real” sport?

I often thought to myself, “Why is dance, so often, stripped from the title of a sport?” 

After consulting the internet, I found some baffling responses to my question. I faced the likes of:

“Athletes are strong and lean and dancers are little, fake dolls.”

“Athletes get hurt and we tough it out, whereas dancers don’t really ever tough it out. And plus, dance isn’t in the Olympics.”

However, according to Merriam Webster Dictionary, a sport is an activity one “plays in a happy and lively way.”

This past month, I was reminded of the humble roots of a true sport through my time learning more about UF’s premier Indian dance team, Gator Bhangra.

Bhangra is a combination of traditional music and dance from the region of Punjab, India. Originally, the dance form was used to celebrate the arrival of spring, known as Vaisakhi. However, Bhangra has truly emerged in an enormous fashion through its integration with Western artists and music, such as JayZ and hip hop. By providing an outlet to the Asian community, especially first generation Asian-Americans, Bhangra allows individuals to remain rooted to their heritage in a way that allows for creative freedom through the collaboration of Western and Eastern cultures.

Photographer: Caroline Nickerson

The dance form incorporates many props, such as “Shikkey,” which are wooden instruments that represent the cutting of instruments during harvest season, as well as “Khundey” and “Katos,” which are five foot tall sticks representing a common walking stick and wooden instruments that mimic the actions of a squirrel, respectively.

Intricate outfits accompany the use of such symbolic props. For men, the costume consists of “Kurtas,” which are long shirts with a vest on top, as well as a “Chaadra”, which is a long piece of cloth which is tied around the waist. Women also wear a “Kurta,” and “Salwaar,” which are long pants. Both men and women adorn their costumes with turbans, “Chunnis,” and elaborate jewelry such as “Kainthe,” “Taveets,”and “Phuman.”

But that’s just Bhangra in general. Gator Bhangra encompasses even more.

Photo: Caroline Nickerson
Photo: Caroline Nickerson

Founded in 2003, Gator Bhangra was formed in hopes of spreading the Punjabi culture throughout the UF campus and the state of Florida. This highly competitive group of individuals takes their talents to competitions and performances around the state during the fall semester, as well as across the nation to places such as Tennessee and Texas during the more competitive spring semester.

During a typical week as a dancer on Gator Bhangra, one attends three practices ranging from 3-4 hours, each of which can increase in amount and timing as competitions approach. Second year captain Sahil Ghay explained that “practices are typically structured to be as efficient as possible, and teach our members as much choreography and formations in the amount of time we have. Usually, at the beginning of the semester, we are a bit more laid back at practice, but when we come closer to competition time, we tend to become stricter.”

Family. Passion. Commitment.

Photographer: Caroline Nickerson

Within the past few days, I have been able to connect with the entire Gator Bhangra family. Providing a supportive environment with a true emotional closeness, Gator Bhangra encourages dancers with a wide range of abilities to try out for their team. This year, the team consists of a mix of 23 veteran and beginner level dancers, in which only 12 team members earn starter positions. Although attaining a starter position is competitive, each member I spoke to professed the extreme personal development that occurs by simply being a part of the team, both inside and outside the realm of dance.

First year Gator Bhangra dancer Pinal Patel shared, “On Gator Bhangra, the idea of being a team that dances together comes along with the idea of being a family that sticks together. Whenever one person doesn’t understand a particular move or how to execute a certain step, anybody would take the time to teach that person how to improve. That is something that truly stands out to me.”

Similarly, second year Gator Bhangra dancer and team manager, Bhuvna Mahajan explained, “Trying out for Gator Bhangra was one of the best decisions I made. Through this team, I have found some of my closest friends and the true meaning of family.”

When not at practice or competitions, the Gator Bhangra family can be seen munching on food, pulling through long study sessions together and any other dance or non-dance related activity that represents a true friendship. To paraphrase captains Sahil Ghay and Yash Desai, “Each and every member is supportive of each other whether it be in regards to dancing, academics or even personal life. We stand by each other in moments of success or even failure. More importantly than being teammates, we are all friends.”

Although Gator Bhangra represents a close-knit family on a daily basis, it is when the team performs for a home crowd that they are able to best reflect the cohesive whole they truly are.

“Win or lose, it’s all about having fun. We get on stage to enjoy ourselves and spread our dance to the crowd. A trophy is only a tangible item but the memories made on stage are truly unforgettable.”

Screams from friends and family and a sudden adrenaline rush suddenly flush over each dancer as they walk upon the stage. Suddenly, every practice and frustrating mistake feels worth it.

Within the final moments before the lights flash on and electrifying music begins, Gator Bhangra chants their infamous phrase, “Gainesville Di Shann. Swamp Di Jaan,” and then begin their captivating routine. Ultimately, they will leave the crowd in awe of the epic performance that Gator Bhangra always gives.

Gator Bhangra is the definition of what a sport, and more importantly, what a team, should be. Through connecting individuals to their heritage, a community to the Punjabi culture, and dancers to one another, Gator Bhangra colors our campus with heart and vibrancy, defined by their joyous movements, athleticism, and skill.

Merriam Webster got it right, I think it’s time we all did, too.