Neeta Lakshmi leads a Bollywood Dance fitness class at the Ashland YMCA.

Dancing with Spirit

Putting on a gold-embroidered, silken sash puts Neeta Lakshmi Singh in the dancing mood.

Typical of Lakshmi's native India, the garment glorifies Eastern tradition behind the Western trends characterizing her country's modern dance. It's called Bollywood, a name borrowed from the Hindi-language film industry based in Mumbai. It's also a popular pastime that is strenuous enough for a starring role in the local fitness scene.

"It's kind of the Indian version of Zumba," says Laurie Evans, of Ashland Family YMCA, referring to a trademarked form of exercise that combines Latin dance steps with reggae and hip-hop.

A frequent participant in the YMCA's ongoing Zumba class, Lakshmi demonstrated some Bollywood steps there for the group. The 33-year-old Talent resident previously taught a Bollywood dance workshop at Southern Oregon University's 2009 International Week and has performed Indian folk dance at the school's annual International Show since 2004.

Teaching nearly 30 styles of folk dance in India before moving to the Rogue Valley in 2003, Lakshmi started learning at age 4 from her grandmother, who performed at family gatherings and community events in India.

"Every celebration involves dance and music," Lakshmi says. "It's very festive."

Her enthusiasm and authenticity impressed Evans, who asked Lakshmi whether she'd like to teach a YMCA class of her own. Bollywood joined the Ashland club's schedule in January to an overwhelming response from more than 50 members.

"It was crazy," Evans says of Bollywood's premiere.

The number of students has diminished, but Lakshmi's intensity hasn't. Each class gives participants an hour of heart-pounding aerobic exercise with deep stretching at the beginning and end, as well as some techniques for improving balance, such as yoga's "tree" pose. Students — mostly women between the ages of 15 and 65 — come ready to challenge their endurance and coordination.

"People are sweating in my class," Lakshmi says, adding that Bollywood works the upper body in particular with its numerous arm movements.

Lakshmi's arms stretch languidly overhead to the lilt of a feminine voice that announces the evening's first dance. Seconds later, her arms pantomime chicken wings flapping to a rapid tempo. Feet stomp, knees jab high into the air, hips twist and heels reach toward students' posteriors. The dance almost evokes the Hokey Pokey, as students' legs jog in a circle and index fingers twirl near their ears.

"I wouldn't do it if it wasn't fun," says Lakshmi.

The fun becomes frenetic during the beloved anthem "Jai Ho," which wowed audiences in the 2008 film "Slumdog Millionaire" and claimed the Oscar for best original song.

"At the end, it was so cool to see everybody dancing to that song," says Ashland resident Colleen Pyke of the film.

Torsos start swaying to the familiar tune before Lakshmi can demonstrate the first step. Amid staccato slashing motions, dizzying turns and copious clapping, even Lakshmi struggles to stay on the beat and carry out the choreography. Even if they can't keep up, students can't keep the smiles off their faces.

"I just love music," says Pyke, 57. "It was a fabulous workout ... 'cause you're jumpin'."

Dance her preferred workout, Lakshmi says she theorized that plenty of other people favor "more interactive" exercises, rather than manipulating machines. Although some class participants, like 38-year-old Carrie Eskenazi and 61-year-old Sara Walker, both Ashland residents, enjoy all forms of dance, Bollywood appeals to other students, like Pyke, who had never taken a YMCA fitness class despite being longtime members.

"We really appreciate diversity in people," says Evans, the YMCA's health enhancement and older adult director, explaining that members tend to value other cultures.

Eskenazi agrees.

"I'm just glad the Y is offering more international-type classes."

Lakshmi says she believes the importance of dance runs deeper, beyond physical well-being and mental stimulation, to a person's emotional core.

"We as women ... we need to bear a lot of things ... just be strong women," she says. "Dancing really helps with that; it helps the spirit get strong and move forward.

"I feel every woman has a goddess energy, a goddess power."

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