Buffalo Bhangra: Where cultural preservation and cardio go hand in hand

Students discuss the cultural significance of the dance form


Students in the Buffalo Bhangra group use Bhangra as a way of preserving their culture through integration with popular culture. 

Bhangra is a folk dance from the Punjabi region in South Asia. The dance form is a celebration of the harvest season and holds deep cultural meaning to performers, according to Parmveer Ratth, the president of Sikh Student Association and the Bhangra group. 

“From every single prop used in Bhangra, to basically how the costume is, is based off our culture,” Ratth said. 

Ratth said Bhangra dance steps are also related to the harvest, such as Fassla — where dancers move their arms — which mimics how grains “flow in the wind.” And each prop they use also has significance. “Daang,” which is used in the dance, is a walking stick used to walk through fields, and “sapp,” is a percussive instrument that can be used as a scarecrow or to cut crops, according to Ratth. 

Bhangra also tends to be a “highly cardio-intensive workout,” Ratth said, which makes it seem “intimidating” to beginners. 

“[Beginners] easily get startled and get mad or annoyed because I’m kind of yelling at them to fix this step, or I keep repeating the same thing over and over,” Ratth said. “But once they realize their mistakes and see the difference, they don't get angry anymore.”

Jasmeet Aujla, secretary of SSA was a beginner herself when she joined Buffalo Bhangra as a freshman and said she also felt this frustration. 

“It was obviously frustrating at first. But luckily, we spent the first few months doing a boot camp of sorts where we learned the basic steps,” Aujla said.

She said beginners who get upset when they are unable to perform perfectly are “the ones who are really trying,” and are usually given more attention in instruction. 

The months of hard work and constant practice are worth it to the group however, when it sees the reaction of students at events, such as the upcoming International Fiesta on Saturday. 

“You can see, as soon as [Buffalo Bhangra] gets on stage, everyone’s just erupting. You go back and look at everyone's social media there's always videos and pictures of the Bhangra team,” Arjan Gujral, vice president of SSA said. “Even in Capen, they have this diversity board that they put up this year, and they have old Bhangra teammates that we know.”

The crowd’s response instills a sense of honor for the Bhangra team. 

“You feel a sense of pride. And then it also motivates us to try even better and project what our culture is and what our dance form is,” Ratth said. 

For Punjabi-American students who have grown up in the U.S., the group allows a chance to learn more about the culture they come from. Aujla said she grew up in Watertown, New York, where “there weren’t a lot of Punjabi people,” and her cultural experiences were limited to Sunday school at her local gurdwara and her parents. 

“Which is why when I came to UB, it was such a good opportunity for me to be surrounded by people who could, get me more into it [Punjabi culture],” Aujla said. 

The dance form has high cultural significance to the people of Punjab and their descendents, but students who come from all over India, Pakistan, Africa, Latin America and the U.S. have participated in the group, according to Aujla and Ratth. 

Ratth said song mixes in the Buffalo Bhangra performances use hip-hop beats and nods to famous rappers, which helps attract the audience and prospective dancers. 

“[The audience] finds it appealing when they pick out like, ‘Oh look there's a Kendrick reference,’ or ‘There's a Drake reference,’” Ratth said. 

The pop culture references are more than just a tool to attract the audience, Gujral said. He said the intersections between African American and Punjabi culture run deep. 

“All of the first and second generation brown kids, we all basically listen to rap music because there's so many cultural ties that are interesting,” Gujral said. “Especially between Punjab and like the things that black people have gone through and sort of their history.”

UB’s Bhangra group and SSA, according to Ratth, regularly addresses social issues and are involved in the community. 

“Our main goal is just to share and introduce everyone in the UB community to who we are,” Ratth said. 

Tanveen Vohra is a Co-senior News Editor and can be reached at Tanveen.vohra@ubspectrum.com and @TanveenUBSpec.


Tanveen Vohra is a former senior news editor and covered international relations and graduate student protests.