Bollywood dance explained

Bollywood dance moves are now a familiar sight on Western TV and cinema screens. But what is the symbolism of the gestures, footwork and costumes drawn from classical Indian dance styles?

Bollywood dance is easy on the eye. Dramatic facial expressions and cinematic pizzazz means any viewer, dance aficionado or not, can follow the story.

But beneath the fizz is a series of historic symbols and traditions, which originate in India’s numerous traditional dance forms.

Classical dance forms such as Bharatnatyam and Kathak, and folk dances such as Bhangra, each have their own unique styles, but they often share signs and meanings that are combined to create modern Bollywood dances.

Here, dancers and choreographers Shakti Mohan, Honey Kalaria and Anjali Mehta explain the basics.

Hand movements

These are hand movements that act as a form of sign language to help to tell a story or demonstrate themes such as weather, animals or places.

In Bharatnatyam, these hand movements are called hastas. Asamyukta hastas are done with one hand, while samyukta hastas are done with two.

Mudras are a separate set of hand gestures used across a number of classical Indian dance forms. There are about 108 mudras in total, and successful dancers should know them all.

“These are very important if you want to be a Bollywood dancer, you have to know the basics,” says Kalaria, a London-based dancer, choreographer and performing arts consultant.

“They are very traditional and very helpful if you want to tell a story.”

Neck and head movements

The side-to-side neck movement and the forward-and-back slide – known as the pigeon head – is predominantly an aesthetic part of the dance, but it also adds a sense of fluidity.

It can be seen very clearly in the video of Mohan’s dance above.

“The neck movement is quite a big part of the dance,” says Mehta, a dancer and teacher at Bollywood Dance London.

“It looks really beautiful, but actually it’s probably more helpful to the dancer than the audience. It helps them to become expressive. If you feel free in the neck, you are able to be more emotive, to have stronger facial expressions.”

Facial expressions

Classical Indian dance incorporates two basic elements – abhinaya (expression) and nritta (pure dance).

Nritta is displayed through rhythms and physical movements to musical phrases – it is dance in its purest form.

Abhinaya is rooted in expressions and emotions, and aims to bring life to the story behind the dance. Facial expression and eye movements are essential components. The emphasis in Indian dance is about story telling and expressions contribute to that.

“The eyes should follow the hands,” says Mehta. “That means they can move a lot. There are a few main facial expressions to show, such as anger, sadness, happiness and love. It should be mainly in the eyes and the eyebrows.”

Eyes are heavily lined in black make-up to accentuate their movements.