Detroit Free Press interview with Anuja Rajendra

Hooray for Bollywood

Indian instructor helps team develop folksy, fun routine


Anuja Rajendra of Okemos didn't know the first thing about ice dancing when she was asked last spring to assist in creating Meryl Davis and Charlie White's Indian-themed original dance with coaches Marina Zoueva and Igor Shpilband.

Eight months later, Davis and White's OD has become a hit around the globe: Their winning performance from this season's Roselecom Cup in Russia has attracted more than 225,000 views on YouTube.

The attention is certain to increase in just under two weeks, when Davis and White -- who train at the Arctic FSC in Canton -- next perform it in competition Jan. 22 in Spokane, Wash., where they'll defend their U.S. title. The championships are the Olympic qualifier for next month's Vancouver Games.

The inspiration for the routine was born last spring, when Zoueva spotted a display of colorful Indian scarves at a store in Spain. The coach went to work choreographing the dance -- which uses music from the 2002 Bollywood hit "Devdas"'-- with a huge technical assist from Rajendra, 37, a former professional Indian dancer and the creator of BollyFit, a fitness-dance studio in Ann Arbor with other metro-area locations.

Jo-Ann Barnas of the Free Press recently caught up with Rajendra -- who was born in Lansing but spent six years of her childhood in northern India with her grandparents -- at a cafe in Ann Arbor. Here are excerpts of the conversation:

Question: So what has the attention been like?

Answer: It's been really wonderful. I'm just so happy for Meryl and Charlie, and the coaches. We just set out to put out the best possible dance without cutting corners, without watering it down. And the public has responded. I'm joyful to see that people are embracing it, Indians and non-Indians alike.

Q: Do you think that figure skating, particularly ice dancing, might have gained a few more fans?

A: People who weren't necessarily tuning in to that part of the Olympics, I think, are excited about it. When I look at the comments about the dance, you see people writing in from Europe, South America, India. It's nice to see the excitement for the state of Michigan, also. I love the fact that they're born and bred here, and they train here. It gives people in our state people to root for.

Q: Did you know anything about Meryl and Charlie before this?

A: Meryl's mom called me. She had read about me -- I think in the Free Press -- and she asked me if I would be interested in working with them. She was very sweet and humble. She said, "We have couple of competitions coming up ... and maybe the Olympics."

Q: How much of the program was a collaboration between you and the skaters and their coaches?

A: After the music was decided upon, ideas started to come out. It's a folk dance, so I wanted to have a folk element for the very first step. Where they're going back and forth, and (Charlie's) holding a flute like Lord Krishna -- we wanted something that was undeniably folk. It's not a religious dance, but very folksy -- you see a lot of it in Indian villages. The middle music portion, they have to put a lot of their technical things in. When Meryl's twirling her hands, she's holding a (pretend) candle. When I asked Meryl, "Are you up to that?" she said, "Sure! I think it's beautiful."

Q: How authentic are they?

A: Extremely authentic. You see a lot of Indian dances, like, Bollywood is all over the place right now. But Meryl and Charlie wanted this to be very classic. So all their hand movements, eye movements, the formations -- everything is very authentic. But it's traditional with a little bit of fun -- a twinkle in the eye -- which is very important in Indian dance.

Q: Are you going to the Olympics?

A: I hope so. Tickets are really tough to come by. I've never seen it (their dance) live in competition, so it would be a blast to be there.

Q: What has been the most interesting or important thing for you that has come out of this?

A: The fact that people of Indian descent around the world are embracing it. It's a big thing to put out there. Indians are very proud of the culture and their heritage. People are loving it, and it's made me very happy

Original Dance photo courtesy of SkateToday (more photos from GPF here).

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