Nakul Dev Mahajan IS Bollywood and since season 4 of So You Think You Can Dance, the choreographer has thrilled audiences with his Bollywood numbers. Besides working on SYTYCD, Nakul is also is the director of NDM Bollywood Dance Studios and director and choreographer for his Bollywood dance company, NDM Bollywood Dance Productions Inc. Not only that, he has also choreographed Bollywood dance numbers for many other projects for television and special events. He also spreads the love and magic of Bollywood through the Bollywood master classes he conducts all over the country. In fact, last November for Diwali, he taught a master class at the White House and met the First Lady, and most recently did a special session for students of the Joffrey Ballet Academy.
Once again, in a wonderful and fun chat with Nakul, I got to indulge my inner dancer and Bolly-ness talking dance and Bollywood. Check out what he had to say about last week’s hit Bollywood number with contestants Ricky Ubeda and Valerie Rockey on SYTYCD, his master class at Joffrey and more naach!
So your first thoughts when you knew that Ricky and Valerie were the couple you would be working with for your number?
I was excited, of course, and then went to watch the shows I had on my DVR just to get an idea of what they can do and their personalities. They did give me a few anecdotes like that she is a tapper but she is a well-rounded dancer – she can do a lot of other things as well. They also said that Ricky is a powerful dancer. They added that both of them have a lot of character already together so I wouldn’t have to worry about getting a performance out of them and that the chemistry would not be an issue. It would be all the other technical elements of Bollywood that would be a challenge. So I was very happy.
I am not sure if you remember, Stacey, but last season, my first number back that introduced Bollywood to season 10, was Jade and Malece, which didn’t go well, in my opinion. It was a difficult week. That week was important for me. I was hoping it would be a kickass performance because I had a difficult year health-wise with the cancer and I was just getting out of treatment, getting back my endurance. I was really kind of hoping that this would be a big moment for me, but it just did not work out that way. So I kind of felt like this week was great and it was redemption in a way. Not that I needed redemption, but just as a choreographer, you always want your first number back to be a strong one. We all want our numbers to be strong, but there is a thing about the first one that we definitely really want to make it memorable.
How were rehearsals?
It was long week, but so enjoyable and rewarding at the end especially when you get two great contestants. It really was a match made in heaven with Ricky and Valerie being paired together and then getting Bollywood. They really exude a lot of happiness together. They genuinely get along so well and it shows. It shows in the way they work and it shows in the way they dance. It is not just for the cameras, this is some inside scoop, that is the way they are all the time – they are really good friends. You know, I have had couples in the past that don’t become friends or are just being as professional as possible and just getting the work done and it shows. There is a missing component and especially with Bollywood where it is a form of dance that, at least America sees as a happy form, it really makes a difference.
So when you first showed them the number and they heard the music what was their reaction?
They were very excited but kept saying “fast, fast, fast.” They were very hard working in the sense that there were a lot of sections that even we, myself and my assistants, had a difficult time doing but we are not America’s top 20 dancers. We know we can’t do it but they can! They were like you know what we can try, it is really fast but they would try and they would do it. They weren’t afraid of it. They were overwhelmed with some of the sequences, but they were like, “OH we ARE going to get it!” They would pat each other on the back, like when either one was struggling and then they got it they were like, “Yeah, look … look at you.” There were hugs and high fives. It actually was a little bit disgusting how much they got along (Laughs). It was great.
You know, every contestant, they are always grateful for learning something new or something out of the box and for having the chance of showcasing something that they have never done before. But there was something about Ricky and Valerie that was a little bit extraordinary. It showed in how much they respected the process of getting there. They were very, very careful about doing the steps properly. They were really humble. I mean there were so many thank yous and pleases throughout our rehearsal. It was refreshing. Stacey, they were so nice! I just wanted to take them home because they were so nice. I really did feel like a proud dad watching them dance. It was a good moment and they were very, very happy.
I just feel there was a lot of commitment and a lot of dedication and a lot trust that they had within themselves and each other and me that they could get the performance I envisioned. They did and they did it better than I thought it would be!
I love ‘Dilli Wali Girlfriend’, why did you choose that song?
It is a very fun song! I always come up with several ideas, then one of our main executive producers, Jeff Thacker, and I sit down and listen and decide. He is like our guru. He is the man behind the scenes. He is… I think the word is genius, that is just who he is. We pick our favorites, ones that will work, ones that won’t work, the ones that might have the connection with America, and the ones that might be a little bit too modern. Jeff Thacker absolutely loved ‘Dilli Wali Girlfriend’. I was so happy about that because I feel that it has that young fresh flavor and it is heavily influenced with Punjabi Bhangra music. I was very happy they were on board with getting the song cleared and I am happy that people in India cleared the music because that can be an issue. There is a lot of red tape to get through. It is not that easy. I was happy to get the song cleared and really happy to get this couple because they really embodied it.
What did you think of their performance?
I thought it was a stellar performance! I think it stood out. I am really, really proud of them. I think sometimes people are so quick to judge, but they have to understand that these people have never done this before. They have never done Bollywood and until you do it, you don’t understand it or respect it. That has been like my biggest thing, because you know a lot of the contestants and the audience members see Bollywood as something that is just fun and energetic and happy. There is so much more to Bollywood dancing. I think it actually is one of the hardest dance styles to do on the show. It is not until they are on the dance floor and they have to learn intricate footwork with these arm movements and finger gestures, then there is the neck and then putting it all together can they fully understand and comprehend that this is not easy at all! And I kick their butts, Stacey; I really push these kids to a different level. I think America will come to realize that this is not just a dance where you wear bindi, a pretty sequined outfit, and do the light bulb step. It is not just that! It takes years to master! And every contestant who has done Bollywood has only had about 8 hours to do this on stage. And they are even thrown to the wolves or they are celebrated. It is kind of sad when they are thrown to the wolves because it is not fair!
Both Ricky and Valerie were so into it and it was so good. They even got the facials and got the character I think you wanted them to portray. Valerie especially did some great facials, which I know and you have told me before are so important.
I love that you brought that up. My favorite part of that was the section was when she was on his shoulder and she goes for that dip and before she goes down she does the “Okay Bye!”. Cat Deeley was all over that. That was the funniest thing on set and in dress everyone was saying “Okay bye… okay bye.” After the performance we keep rewinding that part over and over again, because right before she does the dip and she is about to say “Okay Bye” there is a little shimmy with the head and neck that she does that we didn’t tell her to do. She did it on her own! I told to her go up there, say “Okay Bye” and be very sassy about it but she brought this little Indian neck thing and the shimmy of the shoulder while she did it. That was all her performing. That just puts a huge smile on our faces. We were like “Look at her! Could she be any more Indian at that section right there?!?!”
The audience loved it, how does it feel to be in the audience and experience that and to see how happy your dancers are?
It is just great. I mean the energy in the room! The first 8 bars kicked in and everybody shot up on their feet and everyone in that studio was clapping together until that dance was done. It was such a moment! It was beautiful to have that response. I don’t read too much online but my team and my assistants do and they have been telling me the feedback has been awesome and people have loved it. The one, of course, that I feel very proud about is Paula Abdul tweeted about how much she loved the Bollywood number. And you know I am huge fan. And I am like, “Okay if Paula likes, it I’m happy.”
How much did you love that Misty Copeland from American Ballet Theater said it was important to have Bollywood on the show and her compliments about the style of dance?
She just spoke so eloquently about the importance of having Bollywood on the show, about how hard it was and the comparison she made with the movements of Ballet and Bollywood. It was very beautiful. I was very humbled by it.
Judges Mary Murphy and Nigel Lythgoe both loved the number too.
Mary and Nigel have been huge supporters of Bollywood since the very beginning. Actually Nigel is very, very much in tune with the Indian culture. When you go to his home he has beautiful Indian statues and artwork so he is a fan of our culture and he is a fan of Bollywood. He has always appreciated not just Bollywood dancing but because he is so well rounded with the world of dance he is very familiar with other styles of dance in India like Bharatanatyam and Kathak. Mary has been on several SYTYCD installments of other countries and she has been exposed to the Bollywood of other countries as well. She has always been very nice to me and has always has said wonderful words about my numbers. I’m such a big fan of them. I’m very grateful for everything they have said.
How exciting is it that it seems that each year Bollywood is one of the highlights of the season and it is so liked, especially since earlier Bollywood really had sort of a cheesy reputation here in the US?
I would like to think that people think that. The show has really tried to elevate dance and the world styles of dance by bringing them on to the show throughout the seasons, but there is something about Bollywood that has just stuck with America. It is the only world style or “cultural dance” that gets invited each year. I think that speaks volumes! Also I think for the fans of Bollywood, who watch the show, this is a huge and proud moment. To experience that and to see it and to live it, says a lot about the time we are in right now. It is important. 10 years ago this wasn’t happening. This is my 8th or 9th year so imagine that…10 years ago there was no Bollywood on television at all! I think that should be the big focus on how much we have evolved.
Of the dancers that are still on the show as of the Top 14, do you have any you would love to work with?
That is a difficult question because there are so many amazing dancers that are left. I think it would be fun to work with Rudy. I think Rudy would look great doing Bollywood. I think it would be fun to work with Tanisha. Something about her during the show on Wednesday really got me. I couldn’t stop thinking about her in that group number with Sonya Tayeh. Plus her hip-hop number from Dave Scott. Her legs…Oh My Lord! I think it would be great to work with the two of them. But you know I am just happy with whomever I get in the end because I see it as another chance for America to be exposed to the world of Bollywood. That is really the overall win!
You recently had a special interaction with the Joffrey Ballet School…
The Joffrey Ballet is renowned, as you know, and they do workshops throughout the summer in various cities around the globe and there is one in Los Angeles. They booked me for two wonderful Bollywood master classes. I thought it was all local dancers but I did not know it was a palette of dancers from around the world. I think these workshops are wonderful because they expose these aspiring dancers to many different styles and choreographers. These workshops are so powerful in so many ways. I was very, very fortunate to be a part of it.
What music did you choose for the class?
This time I did it to ‘Chammak Chalo’ from Ra.One. I thought that it was a nice blend of East meets West with Akon singing the playback. You can’t go wrong with a Shah Rukh Khan song. Never, ever. I thought that the musicality was fun. It has a hint of the traditional beats and drums beautifully fused with American or Western world styles of instruments. They loved it! As soon as I told them it was Akon they were like what really? They could really relate to it and I wanted something that was really relatable.
My ballet dancer side is coming out for this question. I was thinking today that the classic and traditional dances of Indian, which I know you incorporate in your style, they have very nice lines, very interesting intricate ways of moving, certain poses and movements and I think a ballet dancer with the technique that they have could almost do that easier. Would you say that ballet dancers would have an easier time with Bollywood?
Absolutely, There are a lot of similarities. They are quite structured so you can definitely see a difference of a ballet dancer doing Bollywood moves versus a tapper or ballroom or someone that is not trained at all of South Asian descent. We just all move differently. Ballet dancers really carry themselves and they are really about their lines (how they look in certain positions) and their form. Sometimes I do have to tell them loosen up a little bit, relax your body, and bend your knees more – don’t stay so upright – just let go!
As you know, as you are such a huge Bollywood expert and you have so much love for Bollywood, you know that there is Bollywood that is traditional, there is Bollywood that is Western, there is Bollywood now that is a bit contemporary, it all depends on what the choreographer wants. My style is fusing the traditional and the folk with Western staples but heavy on the traditional and folk side. That is what I do. I tend to tell my students who are taking my class that you really have to loosen up and not be so stiff. I always find that the ballet dancers are very technically sharp with their moves, they are very accurate and I like that.
It is the Bhangra they have a hard time with, which is the folk. It is more grounded and heavy and kind of hard hitting. I kind of have to shake them up a little bit and say RELAX! LOOSEN IT UP! LET IT GO!
At the end dance is the same language it is all the same language anyway so we are all interconnected somehow.
Did they know Bollywood?
They did. I always give a little bit of a history lesson at the beginning and during my classes. I don’t feel this is just about learning the moves and then going home. I feel there needs to be some kind of verbal explanation, especially with Bollywood, of exactly what you are doing, where it comes from, what it is today, what it used to be. I had a few people from the second class who came to me saying that the Bollywood that they have done was very different from what they have done with me. That they had liked both and they appreciated the different styles and that is always nice to hear because I have never have been one, Stacey, to preach that Bollywood dancing is one way and only one way. We all have our tastes in what we like or what we are drawn too. You know, for me I am a product of watching Sri Devi and Madhuri Dixit; that’s my Bollywood. I know a lot for the new generation Bollywood is Katrina Kaif, Deepika. That is their Bollywood, which is different from watching a Sri Devi or Madhuri number. So we all have our own take on what we think Bollywood dance is but it doesn’t mean that one person is right by saying everyone else is wrong in his or her style.
Your favorite thing about sharing your dance with the world?
For me it has been about cultural awareness, Stacey. In Los Angeles, in the school I grew up in, I was the only Indian boy in my class. There were only 2 other Indian girls in our school. So I grew up to a lot of ridicule. I grew up to a lot of ignorance so to me my favorite part is standing proudly saying this is a form of dance from India. This is a form of dance that is so rich with culture. This is just the tip of the iceberg of what our culture is about, there is so much. I just love when people tell me they never knew that India has this or they never knew this was from India. I have had people tell me they didn’t know Yoga was from India. I don’t dwell on the ignorance of it. I just look at the positivity of it that this master class just allowed the student to figure out where India is on the map and realize it is in Asia not in Africa and I just taught someone something today through Bollywood dancing. Who would have thought?? There are so many things Stacey, this answer can be in levels for me. I like showing people and I like telling people about India in any way I can, because I am very proud of where I come from and I am very proud of being able to represent my country in a very, very small minuscule way, which is Bollywood, because we are more than just Bollywood. We are more than just snake charmers and we are more than just elephant people. There is a lot our country has to offer. I feel like there are stepping stones to get people interested in your culture and if I through Bollywood can do that then I feel like I have gotten something done.
We can’t wait to see what he brings to the SYTYCD stage next and you can be sure we will get the naachy scoop!
Check out Ricky and Valerie Bollystyle on SYTYCD.