"For first-place Fiesta finisher, chemistry made the difference"
When Cory Russo, a senior business major, couldn't keep up with the Indian Student Assocation's (ISA's) Bollywood moves during practice, he knew exactly what to do: break out the Cotton-Eyed Joe.
On Friday night, the ISA donned brightly colored skirts, veils and vests to share the epic love story of the Taj Mahal through the art of dance. After a performance filled with energy, neon fabric and grand romance, ISA placed first in International Fiesta's competition for the second year in a row.
Russo, who has been participating in ISA's performances for four years, recalls this year's dance practices with a smile. As the only white male on the dance team, he joked that he incorporated his "white person dances" into practices to add some cultural diversity.
When dancers forget their moves, most ISA members resort to traditional Indian dance moves. But for non-Indian ISA members like Russo and senior anthropology major Rachel Hickson, American dance moves come more naturally.
"We'd just go into the Cotton-Eyed Joe or the electric slide," Russo said. "We also tried to get the 'Single Ladies' dance in, because in our routine, the wife dies and the emperor's single again. We thought it would be a funny finale to the dance, but they wanted to keep it culturally Indian."
The Taj Mahal was built between 1631 and 1648 by the order of Shah Jahan after his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, passed away during childbirth. Made of white marble and admired across the world, the building stemmed from the emperor's promise to his dying wife - he told her he would build the richest mausoleum over her grave. Now considered one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Taj Mahal is considered a testament to eternal love and remains one of India's most popular tourist attractions.
ISA painted a portrait of the building and displayed it during the finale of its performance. It was ISA member Lindsay Cunliffe's favorite moment onstage.
"We stayed up so late painting it, and in the end, I was so proud of it," said Cunliffe, a senior psychology major, in an email. "Once you get immersed in the Indian culture, you just want to keep learning more and experiencing new things."
As seniors, this was the last year of participating in International Fiesta for Russo and Cunliffe. They've been involved since their freshman year and will miss the culture and friendships ISA introduced to them. They said that besides the culture, the best part of their involvement with ISA has been the friends they've made.
"In ISA, we are a big family and I couldn't imagine spending my four years here at this school with anyone else," Cunliffe said. "I love this club, I love all of the people who have come and gone, and I will cherish the memories that I have for the rest of my life!"
Most of Russo's favorite memories from his time in ISA are from the practices preceding Fiesta performances. The practice before the big day was the most serious, he said - everyone was dedicated, enthusiastic and coming together as a team. But every practice was rigorous in its own way and became a time for bonding, he said.
"We have the longest nights," Russo said. "We'll be up every single night 'til 12:30 or 1 in the morning. Everyone is so tired, but we all keep coming back. It's so nice to hang out with the people, and you see them every day."
Priya Sasankan, a junior psychology major, is the president of ISA. Indian culture has long been important to Sasankan. She grew up attending Indian events in Buffalo and feels that she's "always been a part of it."
"The Indian community here in Buffalo is very strong," Sasankan said. "Ever since I was a child, I have always been involved with and grew up with strong ties to my culture."
Sasankan loved having the opportunity to bring her entire team on stage. Her favorite part of ISA's participation in Fiesta was the performance's finale, because of its high energy.
"When you get on that stage, you begin to feel the emotion of the music and any nervousness you may have had leaves you," Sasankan said.
She felt amazing during the whole performance, she said - it was only afterward that the nervousness set in.
"The competition was incredibly tough this year, and every team did such an amazing job," Sasankan said.