A high-octane Indian dance is now a subway ride away.
Once a year in October, dancers swirling in concentric circles transform the basketball courts at Chelsea Piers into one of Manhattan’s largest South Asian dance festivals. Decked out in traditional kurtas and saris, nearly 500 dancers whirl, kick and clap in tune to popular Indian folk and Bollywood songs during the annual Garba in the City event. For four hours, participants dance garba and raas — two Indian folk dances traditionally performed during Navaratri, a nine-night Hindu festival celebrating the goddess Durga. While Navaratri dates back thousands of years, Garba in the City is celebrating its fifth anniversary this week.
When festival founders Sneha Chandrasekaran, 31, and her husband, Vikram, 34, started looking for local Garba-Raas events, their search led to long commutes and crowded New Jersey venues. Although MetLife Stadium hosts an annual Garba-Raas that attracts thousands of dancers, the lack of Garba-Rass events on this side of the Hudson prompted the couple to create Garba in the City in 2011.
“I wanted people to go to a Garba-Rass in their own backyard,” Sneha Chandrasekaran said.
Garba is a folk dance characterized by synchronous steps and quick twirls, while Raas involves participants clapping sticks together as dancers circle one another. Dancing can be tricky at larger events, Chandrasekaran said.
“You can’t really dance or do the moves because people are running into each other and circles are hitting one another because of space,” she said.
The Asian American Federation notes that Manhattan’s Indian-American population has increased nearly 70 percent since 2010, with the borough now boasting about 27,000 Indian Americans, or roughly 1.6 percent of Manhattan’s residents.
The rise of young Indian- and South-Asian-American professionals who call Manhattan home corresponds with the increase of events like Garba in the City, according to Sahasra Sambamoorthi, 29, director of Navatman, an Indian classical music and dance organization. “If you look at the number of South Asian events in August alone you have the South Asian Film Lab and the South Asian International Performing Arts Festival and five years ago none of that was there,” Sambamoorthi said.
While it’s still one of the few Garba-Raas celebrations in Manhattan, Garba in the City isn’t the city’s only dance event held during Navaratri. “In the Queens and the Richmond Hills area there are almost 50 to 75 Garba-Rass events,” said Pandit Vishal Maraj, 36, of the Hindu Learning Foundation, a community nonprofit in Ozone Park, Queens.
Outer-borough Navaratri events are often held in Hindu temples and community centers that are supported by the borough’s Trinidadian, Guyanese, Indian and Bangladeshi populations. But for Manhattanites with no connection to the outer boroughs, Garba in the City offers an alternative celebration.
“The attractiveness of events like Garba in the City is in part because I think the Queens and suburban ones tend to be more community-oriented,” Sambamoorthi said. “I’ve been to Garba in the City a couple of times and it’s very diverse.”
The event, advertised widely on social media and spread via word-of-mouth through the city’s dance community, features a live band and typically attracts young professionals primarily between 18 and 35 years old.
“I think it’s evolved. What’s great is that it’s not only South Asians but other dance enthusiasts who are unfamiliar with it [Garba-Raas],” Chandrasekaran said.
According to Minila Shah, 34, director of Ajna Dance, a contemporary and classical Indian dance studio, the popularity of events such as Garba in the City and the increase of studios teaching South Asian dance corresponds to the nation’s increasing cultural recognition of South Asian Americans. A number of South Asian actors like Hannah Simone, of Fox’s “New Girl,” and Mindy Kaling, of Hulu’s “The Mindy Project,” now star in popular television shows.
“There’s more South Asian culture and characters on TV shows, in standup comedians, in food — it’s definitely becoming more a part of American culture,” Shah said.
At Chelsea Piers on Saturday, dancers will spin in time to the music and into the early morning.
“People are there to dance and have a good time,” Shah said. “That’s why you’re there — it’s not a club environment, it’s not a wedding. It’s just someplace for people who love to dance to go to dance.”
Garba in the City takes place Oct. 17 from 9:30 pm to 1:30 at the Sports Center at Chelsea Piers. More information can be found online at garbainthecity.com/