Words by Bolly Golightly | Introduction by Mia Maraschino | Edited by Eva Devore | Photography by Etienne Reynaud
Cultural Appropriation is an often talked about topic in the current political climate. Many people make the assumption that to be ‘politically correct’ is to refrain from engaging in other cultures and their practices, and consider that engagement appropriative regardless of context. Truth is, there are ways to respectfully participate in and experience other cultures, so long as you are coming from a place of respect and appreciation. Generally, ‘Cultural Appropriation’ refers to the act of taking particular parts of a culture that’s not your own and using it for your own personal gain. This could be anything from a dressing up as a ‘Bollywood star’ for halloween (we are not your costume!), to teaching ‘western’ yoga without acknowledging or giving back to the culture from which it originated. On the other hand, ‘Cultural Appreciation’ is when someone shows genuine interest in another culture, and aims to learn more about it purely to broaden their horizons, as well as understand, respect, and connect with others. This week Bolly Golightly writes about her experiences as a Bollywood dancer of Indian heritage, and her recent performance at Heartstoppers. She talks about Cultural Appreciation within the arts, and explains the ways in which you can politely and respectfully engage in another culture. So, without further ado, read away!
The conversation about cultural appropriation is alive and well in white societal consciousness. As a Bollywood dancer of Indian heritage (and it needs to be said – of Indian look), I’ve seen the conversation take place over the last 15 years, increasing in ferocity over the last 5 years as people on either side of the argument either defend their culture or question whether cultural appropriation has gone too far.
Bollywood is part of my heritage, my cultural identity, my professional portfolio and it is my work. For over 20 years I’ve experienced the best and worst that cultural dance has to offer. I’ve often arrived at Bollywood parties, greeted by blackface and fake Indian accents. I’ve witnessed the fetishising of the east when white people come to my classes to find spirituality. It’s disconcerting, particularly when teaching parts of Bollywood that are lacking in symbolism, ritual or meaning! See the Dhoom franchise if you want more evidence of that! I’m wary of white people who want to don a sari for a day, without a second thought to the millions of women who wear them in far from glamorous situations. India has a big and growing middle class, but many of India’s women still live in abject poverty, violent situations or work endlessly at hard manual labour – yes, in a sari.
But more often, I’ve met people who want to learn about Bollywood as an art form, respectfully and thoughtfully. An excellent example of this has been my latest creative adventure, creating Bollywood Burlesque classes at Sky Sirens and the Bolly Bombshells, who had their first performance at the Vaudeville showcase, Heartstoppers, last night. The vision was to bring Bollywood into the world of Burlesque, respectfully and appropriately. We wanted to bring diversity to the showcase, and with so many conversations around the dangers of cultural appropriation, show how cultural appreciation is possible and even necessary when done right.
Veteran burlesque performers and aerial enthusiasts Eva Devore and Wednesday were chosen to be Bollywood Burlesque pioneers with me. They are both white, and when I say that, I mean classically beautifully, porcelain skinned, dark haired queens. They make quite the contrast to my own dark skin and vibrantly dyed red hair, and we endlessly joked about them being my ‘goth’ back-up dancers.
To my mind, Eva and Wednesday were far from back up. We were collaborators, bringing together a unique blend of Bollywood, Burlesque and lyra in a heart stopping, glittering piece. I wanted all our talents to work together to bring about the diversity and inclusiveness that world dance styles can provide. In rehearsals, I led the dance choreography, explaining the movements as I went. Eva and Wednesday took in the information about the origins and symbolism of movements when they arose – the wheel of industry, India’s natural beauty being represented through peacocks and lotus blooms, elements of Bharatanatyam (classical Indian dance), representations of Indian worship and religion. They asked meaningful questions about eye movement, hand control, finger placement and formations. They made sure to practice the cultural symbolic elements extra hard to present them as authentically as they could. We collectively decided that I would dance in the middle, not to be the leader, but privilege my cultural representation of India in the piece.
Costuming presented a challenge because of the prominence of traditional cultural dance and an aerial apparatus. While I recognise that Bollywood today is far from traditional, with many wearing less than bikini in music videos, this was the first Bollywood performance at Heartstoppers. We had to stamp it with a representation of Bollywood that somewhat fitted the audience’s expectations, while broadening their understanding of the art. In rehearsals I tried several times to wear a Bollywood costume on the lyra, including harem pants, lehnghas, choli tops and even small sari skirts. They were all unsuitable. Lyra requires form fitting clothing to slide, invert and grip without catching, and none of the traditional costumes allowed for any of that. We talked about wearing traditional skirts for the initial dance section, then removing them for the lyra. I was sceptical at first, as stripping is not synonymous with Bollywood. I appreciate and celebrate stripping as an artform and through Sky Sirens I am learning every day to be a better ally to adult industry workers. But for Bollywood, sexually stripping would cross a cultural line that would not be looked upon kindly by much of the Indian community.
I consulted with Burlesque expert, Eva and we decided that the skirt removal was practical, to enable the aerial section to be executed properly. We would not remove the skirts suggestively or provocatively, rather we’d do it quickly as a ‘surprise’ for the audience who were not expecting aerial arts as part of the performance. We would keep the focus on the performance rather than the removal of clothing. Eva is multitalented (she’s also a costume designer) so she made the skirts out of my old saris, and attached removable trouser clasps that could be undone on stage seamlessly. We wore choli shaped black bodysuits underneath with fishnets for look and grip. Respectful and practical, costumes were done.
On the day, I supplied Indian jewellery to complete the Bollywood look. All three of us wore the most glamorous Indian necklaces and earrings I could find. Traditional bangles and anklets were not possible, due to the lyra. In a deliberate decision, Wednesday and Eva wore tikkas and I wore a bindi. The matter of bindis is controversial. My entire life, I’ve watched Indian women completing white woman’s Indian costumes by adding a bindi. You can google the bindi’s symbolism, but for many it remains decorative and unproblematic when non-Hindu’s wear them. I’ve always invited my dancers to wear them, but over the last two years I’ve stopped.
Why? This is one of the great complications of cultural appropriation and appreciation. My dancers have always learned the art form respectfully from my authentic cultural knowledge. They are not humoured by the dance. They are not taking the piss. They are not mimicking Indians or pretending to be Indian. I also take time to explain the place of privilege in cultural engagement. I discuss that racism exists and people of colour experience it daily. I mention that people told me my Mum looks like she got ‘shot in the head’ when she wears a bindi. I mention that while white people can wear a costume for a day, we wear oppression for a lifetime. After all of that context, I think the bindi can be worn.
My dancers are showing how we can value culture with the body, being wholly and fully involved, while never forgetting that they are an outsider with a different life experience and much to learn. This is different to a white person wearing a bindi to a bush doof. Or an idiot saying ‘Namaste’ because they heard it at yoga class.
Having said that, new conversations around cultural appropriation mean that my white dancers are subject to criticism and scrutiny when they costume. To err on the side of respect and not place them in a position where they might be vilified, I’ve taken the decision to lay off the bindis. Instead, I helped place Wednesday and Eva’s tikkas, attached with Burlesque stapling (aka carpet tape) so they wouldn’t fall when we invert on the lyra. I did their facial decorations, placing small jewels around the eyebrows and corners of the eyes to create a dazzling, colourful and highly decorative look. The rule of Bollywood is that there is no such thing as ‘too much’. We completed the look with heavy eyeliner, glitter eyeshadow and glitter lips. Wednesday attached a faux glamour ponytail (which I famously knocked off during the rehearsal), Eva bodied her bob and I had refreshed and curled my neon red hair. Performance time arrived and Wednesday looked like a goddess, with her intricate sleeve tatts giving her a decorative mystique I’d never noticed before. Eva looked like a queen, all sparkled and jewelled, with her expressive Burlesque eyes reflecting every element of Bollywood melodrama. I looked like myself at any Bollywood performance. Just more sexy – a welcome evolution.
The performance itself was…well for me, nothing short of a disaster. After a successful rehearsal and more than 100 clean inverts the week previously, at performance time, I COULD. NOT. MOUNT. THE. LYRA. After finally getting up, and performing 2 tricks I dismounted in shame to finish the routine. Eva and Wednesday saved the day with their evocative dancing, spectacular doubles lyra routine and smiles for miles to cover every hiccup. Backstage, I was inconsolable. My tears were endless and my heart was completely broken. I couldn’t stomach the disgust in my own performance. I felt I’d let everyone down – Eva and Wednesday who had worked so hard to create Bollywood magic, Katia and Dhalia who believed in me and took a chance on giving Bolly Burlesque a go on stage, and every single one of my lyra teachers who told me I could. I turns out, I couldn’t. Most of all, I let down myself. I felt so stupid for thinking Bollywood in a lyra was possible, and for thinking that I deserved stage time. And I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d forever be ‘that stupid Indian girl who can’t mount the lyra’.
My Bolly Bombshells held me close and promised that we’d done something special. They begged me not to dwell on the negative but instead see the diversity, colour and excitement we brought to the show. The ever-wise Mouse told me that our job was to entertain and we delivered. Eva and Wednesday wouldn’t leave my side, taking time to tell me all the things we did well. They mentioned some things they learned as part of the project and slowly and gradually I began to feel proud. A life of casual and overt racism has taught me that sharing one’s culture is a risk. Poor Katia who had an awful evening of sickness (but still dazzled in the hoop) explained to me that aerial performance involves yet more risk. Although the risks did not work out for me, it was still a highly worthwhile exercise. The Bolly Bombshells project itself was a gift in that it allowed me to practice my art form, transmit it to generous and respectful dancers, and experiment with fusion under the watchful eye of the most inclusive and supportive studio I have ever known.
At the end of the night, still in tears, my Bolly Bombshells wouldn’t let our achievements be minimised. As a woman of colour, being sidelined is a way of life. Wanting to hide, particularly at hard times, is the default. Yet Wednesday and Eva wouldn’t allow it. Despite my protests, they placed me in the middle during our final curtain call, and bowed beside me with pride. Not in front, not behind, but beside. They were allies from start to finish, never wavering in their commitment to inclusion and support. This, to me, is cultural appreciation. It is not in the dance you do or the costume you wear, but it is the person you are.
If you can approach a new art form without taking up space or sidelining others’ life experience, but show a genuine love and understanding for another human being, then you are embodying the best of what the arts can achieve. Social justice, true equality, empathy, fellowship, tolerance, understanding, joy and hope. For these reasons and so many more, the Bolly Bombshells are true Bollywood dancers and cultural collaborators. They captured my heart and I will remember the experience positively, forever.
Bolly Golightly is teaching another term of Bolly Burlesque in Term Three! Check out the routine in the video above, and if you would like to learn more about Bolly’s gorgeous culture through dance, sign up for the class next term!