Meet dancer and choreographer Amit Patel, who is creating space for queer expression in the South Asian community.
When Amit Patel first danced in heels, he felt empowered. It was the first time he danced sensually. Everything clicked: the added height, the posture those heels required. It was liberating. “I knew that a lot of people in their entire lifetimes would never experience that,” he says.
He wanted more, specifically, to dance in heels to Bollywood music, but no one was offering that class. So he created his own. Now, when he teaches “Bollywood Heels,” a mixture of Kathak gestures (Indian classical dance) and jazz dance, Patel takes great care to create a welcoming learning space for all his students, regardless of their gender expression or sexuality.
“I was able to get to my sense of self through dance,” Patel says. Now he hopes to do the same for others.
Patel wasn’t always comfortable with his own voice. “I was very shy,” he says. “[I] would not be able to speak in complete sentences even at like 16.” During dance performances as a child, Patel says you’d likely find him on the edges, in the back. Over the years, as he studied more dance forms — jazz, hip-hop, contemporary ballet — it opened up a wider world of nonverbal expression. He has synthesized these influences into a genre of dance he calls Indian Contemporary. Today he has a massive social media following and opportunities to teach around the world. That story of growth is rooted in Fremont.
Patel’s parents were born in Gujarat, India, and moved to the Bay Area to work in the tech industry of Silicon Valley. Patel describes the community he grew up in as a diverse mixture of different South Asian groups. As a first-generation Indian American, Patel witnessed how ideas, values and traditions evolved over time within the diaspora. “You have the older generation, you know, my parents’ generation who all immigrated here and some of them will try to retain their culture as much as possible,” he says. “And then you’ll have the next generation who is going to change the game entirely.”
Helping to bridge the gap between generations, especially when it came to Patel’s future as a dancer, was fellow Fremont resident Mona Khan, founder of Mona Khan Company, now one of the biggest platforms for Bollywood dance in North America. Khan was born in Mumbai, the heart of the Bollywood movie industry, and her interpretation of the dance form is expansive. “I personally just love it so much because there are no boundaries,” she says, explaining Bollywood dance is any dance set to Bollywood music. Drawing from Indian folk and classical styles, the choreography has changed over the decades to absorb different international dance trends. Most importantly, Khan says, “Anybody can do Bollywood dance.”
Patel was maybe 10 or 11 when he peeked into one of Khan’s dance classes at the India Community Center in Milpitas. “He was this shyest cutest little kid,” Khan remembers. He would go on to perform in Khan’s company for over a decade.
But Khan did more than provide him with training and a stage. “I think growing up there [was a] very specific idea of what the future was supposed to look like,” Patel says. “You go to high school, you go to college, you get a well-paying job. And that is usually in some sort of STEM field.” But Khan embodied a different path. “With Mona, it was really cool because she ended up coming to the U.S. for her MBA and then from there she started her own dance company and her own troupe,” he says. “I think that showed me that, OK, there is room out there.”
Performing Bollywood routines — dance sequences that required strength and energy and stereotypical “maleness” — also helped Patel understand his own desire for self-expression as a gay man. “Naturally, being a lot more soft-spoken [with] just a different kind of energy, I didn’t necessarily resonate with Bollywood after a time, especially after I started growing up into myself.”
Patel describes moving between two different worlds, one dedicated to Indian music and folk style dancing, the other to ballet and contemporary dance. “Then I was like … I can’t constantly code switch and wear a different hat everywhere I go,” he remembers. “There has to be some happy medium.”
He taught his first Bollywood heels class in 2016, in part because no one else was offering something like it. Now, he says, students routinely come up to him to express their appreciation for the space he’s created in the South Asian community. “In class I try to make it a point to be like, if the choreography doesn’t resonate, if it’s too feminine, too masculine, change it. Interpret it for yourself,” he says.
It’s a radical and welcoming notion, one that seems to launch from Khan’s belief that Bollywood dance has no boundaries — both in terms of form and who can practice it. Patel’s Indian Contemporary movements, appreciative of tradition but open to new modes of expression, is, to her, the result of Patel being “unapologetically himself” and inspiring that same quality in others.
“I think that’s the best part about him,” she says.
– Text by Sarah Hotchkiss
Note: This episode was filmed under strict guidelines due to the coronavirus pandemic. Safety parameters were followed to protect the health of the dancers and video production team.
Top Image: Amit Patel in "If Cities Could Dance: Fremont."