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UW-Madison fusion dance team gains national notice in second year

April 12, 2011

A flurry of women in sequined costumes move across the floor to traditional Indian music, bobbing their heads in synchronized movements and clicking short wooden sticks together in time to the beat.

Video: Wisconsin Surma

This is raas, a style of dancing that comes from the Gujarat region of India, and it is only part of the competition performance of Wisconsin Surma, University of Wisconsin–Madison’s first fusion dance team.

UW-Madison students will have the chance to see Wisconsin Surma, now in its second year, in action Friday, April 15 at India Night, hosted by the Indian Student Association. The free event will be held at the Orpheum Theatre with doors opening at 6:30 p.m.

“People should know Wisconsin has so many great qualities, and a really good dance team. I really want our campus to know what we do,” co-captain Bindiya Shah says.

Fusion dance incorporates a variety of styles, from hip-hop to Bollywood to classical Indian dancing, including specific styles such as Bhangra and raas. The name “surma” itself is also more than meets the eye. In Hindi, its literal translation is “eyeliner,” but its metaphorical meaning is the “essence and beauty of the eye.”

Wisconsin Surma’s competition routine consists of an eight- to 10-minute dance performance set to a montage of eight different song types. This year’s theme was “Dance-opoly”, meaning a monopoly of music and dance.

After taking over as co-captains, sophomores Shah and co-captain Nisha Pillay wanted to bring the team to the same caliber as other nationally ranked fusion dance teams. They learned from watching other teams how to incorporate costumes and props to create an overall performance theme.

And Wisconsin Surma’s dedication has paid off. The team recently beat the University of Illinois at Chicago’s fusion team, long considered one of the best teams in the Midwest, as well as Boston University’s top-ranked team, at a national competition in Iowa City.

Coming from a Big Ten school, it was important for the team to get noticed nationally, and this year schools across the country definitely know who Wisconsin Surma is, Pillay says.

Wisconsin Surma’s 14 members come from varying dance backgrounds. Shah, a pre-med psychology major, graduated from a prestigious traditional classical Indian dance school in Milwaukee before joining the team. Pillay, a kinesiology and physical therapy major, has more expertise in hip-hop. Other team members have different specialties as well, including ballet and contemporary dance.

In addition to the varying levels of dance experience, Wisconsin Surma is not just for Indian students and anyone can try out at open auditions held each fall.

“This is not only an Indian dance team, there are so many dancers of different cultures and backgrounds that can join this team. We could consistently bring this team to new heights,” Pillay says.

During rehearsal, members learn about the cultural origins of the traditional Indian dance styles. For example, Shah taught members more about the background of raas because her family comes from Gujarat, but that is only background information and in the end it is mainly about the dance itself, Shah says.

While team members enjoy the dancing and camaraderie, Pillay says that above all Wisconsin Surma is a competitive team.

“Dancing is fun, but at the end of the day our goal is to compete and win,” Pillay says.

Visit Wisconsin Surma’s Facebook page at  for more information on competitions and tryouts. For more information on India Night, visit the Indian Student Association’s Facebook page.