Thanks to SummerDance, no special gear — nor liquid courage — required for this lively Indian folk dance

When you’re in elementary school and your mother shows up for field day, there’s an unspoken rule: She should be seen (mingling invisibly on the sidelines with the other parents) and not heard.

No child should have to suffer the embarrassment of having his mother not only enter the “Mums’ Race,” but, with flaming red hair streaming behind her, actually try to win — and when she does, fling her arms ferociously into the air.

But that’s my mum. Papa takes to the dance floor with equal gusto. Even at 92, he can’t resist the tug of a samba or cha-cha beat.

I have inherited this rambunctious gene. So I couldn’t refuse when my editor asked me to check out Chicago SummerDance, a season-long dance party put on by the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs & Special Events.

‘Chicago SummerDance’

When: Through Sept. 8

Where: Various locations across Chicago

Tickets: Free

Info: chicago.gov

“Sure, I’ll do it. How about a salsa class?” I offered, having spent several years taking lessons and frequenting a number of Latin dance clubs in the city.

“No, I’d like you to try something new — something you haven’t done before,” she said.

Gulp.

Dancing doesn’t come naturally to me. I took dozens of salsa classes in my 30s and early 40s. I got to be good, but I have a dirty little secret: I kept lists — pages and pages of scribbled notes, each step, hand movement and turn numbered. Sometimes I’d even stuff my cheat sheets into a trouser pocket and pull them out just before I went on the dance floor. So much for muscle memory.

Chicago Sun-Times reporter Stefano Esposito (right) dances along with instructor Gopi Engineer, artistic director of Meher Dance Company, during a Bhangra class at Taste of Chicago Rogers Park at Touhy Park.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

But then I injured my back about six years ago, and it was all I could do to sit at my desk for a couple of hours without reaching for painkillers and a heating pad.

In any event, I arrived early at Touhy Park in the Rogers Park neighborhood on a recent Saturday for the first of the city’s free SummerDance programs. That’s my M.O. When I was a cub reporter in Washington state, an editor once asked me to take a ride in a stunt plane for a story. I got to the hangar an hour early — to pick the plane that looked least likely to crash.

In front of the makeshift stage, I met Vardha Kharbanda, a young PhD student in clinical psychology. She loves to dance, particularly Bhangra, the traditional folk style from the state of Punjab in the north of India that I’d be learning.

“It involves your whole body. You should throw your arms and legs out. Enjoy the beat,” she advised. “Most of the best dances I’ve done in my life are when I’m [drunk] at Indian weddings.”

Participants dance during a Bhangra class at Taste of Chicago Rogers Park at Touhy Park earlier this month, as part of the city’s SummerDance program featuring free dance classes that will take place across the city.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

I was not drunk. Not even buzzed.

But there was no need to worry, no need for pages of notes, special shoes or booze. And it was actually tremendously fun.

The relentless beat of the dhol, a barrel-shaped drum struck at both ends, lures you onto the dance floor (in this case, just a slab of hot tarmac).

And then Gopi Engineer, the founder and director of the Chicago-based Meher Dance Company, urges you to shed your inhibitions and give it a go — leading the attendees through a series of basic dance moves.

The dance, originally enjoyed to celebrate a successful harvest, is as much swooping hand movements as it is about the feet. It’s bouncy too, but not in a bone-jarring way.

Before long, Engineer had 150 or so people infected with the Bhangra rhythm. I kind of wish I hadn’t taken up a position in the front row in the direct sunlight, where, after about 20 minutes, I felt like a chicken roasting in a Tandoor oven. I probably could have done without the skintight white jeans, too.

I bailed after half an hour, not because I wanted to but because I had to put on my reporting hat — and I was parched.


Engineer was born in Michigan and grew up in Tennessee. She started dancing in her parents’ living room as a toddler.

“Even though we grew up in the States, my mother made sure my sister and I learned authentic Indian dances …,” Engineer said, sweat glistening on her brow after an hour of nonstop Bhangra. “She even took us to India during our summer holidays to learn. We would put on music and just dance our hearts out.”

Engineer and Meher Dance have been teaching classes at SummerDance off and on for the last 12 years, she said. TV shows such as “So You Think You Can Dance” have help fueled a huge increase in interest in Indian — specifically, Bollywood — dance, she noted.

“Then over time, Netflix and music concerts have incorporated Indian songs, like Punjabi music,” she said. And just this week, one of the biggest stars in Punjabi music, Diljit Dosanjh, appeared on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.”

One measure of interest is how often Engineer’s dancers get hired to perform at corporate events. Prior to the pandemic, about 4 to 6 annually. Last year, they did about 40 events.

“Every year, we get a lot of people from all walks of life, and what we try to do is make Bhangra dance, folk dance, Indian dance, Bollywood dance as approachable as possible,” she said.

And they do — even for a 56-year-old white guy with a very dodgy back.

To learn more about Meher Dance, go to meherdance.com.

Gopi Engineer, artistic director of Meher Dance Company, dances in front of kids during a Bhangra class at Taste of Chicago Rogers Park at Touhy Park.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

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