Before launching into an hour of kicks, hand flicks and hip bumps, Kajal Desai turned to the dozen students assembled in a fitness studio last month and offered two pieces of advice: "Smile lots and have fun."
That's what she's been doing since 2005, when she met Priya Pandya. Desai was working for Booz Allen Hamilton in Washington, and Pandya, a Georgetown graduate, had stuck around the city for a position at the World Bank. And both were desperately looking for Indian dance.
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When they found each other, they realized they could teach dance classes and start their own Bollywood-inspired performance troupe, which they named Doonya. The blend of the Hindi words for "rhythm" and "world" might have seemed a tad grandiose early on, as they were still figuring out how to break down dance steps and recruiting students through Craigslist.
But their project soon took off. In 2007, they quit their day jobs. In 2009, Pandya started teaching classes in New York. These days, that global success doesn't feel so far off. They've found an even larger audience by emphasizing the fitness benefits; recently, Desai and Pandya helped Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb shake it on the "Today" show. That appearance was promoting the first Doonya workout DVDs, a three-disc series to be released in February.
With Desai's impending move to Los Angeles, the company will push hard to add classes there and elsewhere. Teacher trainings are scheduled over the next month in Washington, New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco to get more instructors certified so more folks can find Doonya at a gym or dance studio near them.
"I see this as something that people can do everywhere in the U.S. We've broken it down really simply and made it accessible," Pandya says.
Although choreography classes are still part of the Doonya repertoire, Desai and Pandya are now focusing on the fitness market with a class format that keeps students moving through a series of songs regardless of whether they've mastered every step.
"So many people are afraid of dance. Their reaction is, 'I'm not a dancer. I can't dance,'" says Pandya, who's found that she gets a very different response when Doonya is pitched as exercise. "They say, 'I can go to the gym. I need to go to the gym.'"
There are other Indian dance workouts around, but Desai says what makes Doonya stand out is its blend of styles. Bolly-Pop's rib cage isolations work the abs. Bhangra adds big moves that tax the legs and pump up the cardio. Classical dance, which can look a bit like barre, hits the thighs, butt and saddlebags. Add in some folky stuff, with claps that keep the upper body activated, and devote a few minutes to pushups or a weightlifting routine, and "you're using everything in your body," Desai says.
Desai is hoping this form of dance aerobics with cultural flair can follow in Zumba's footsteps. "There's room for more, and Zumba instructors and students would like this, too," she says.
The two programs certainly have similarities, including the zippy pace and spunky soundtrack. While Zumba is a Latin dance party, Doonya is a Shahrukh Khan flick.
That vibe was exactly what Laura Bennett was looking for in 2007 when she signed up to take her first Doonya class. "It all started because I was watching Bollywood movies. There were always fantastic song-and-dance numbers, so I'd pause the TV and try to do them in my living room," the 42-year-old Virginia resident says.
Getting instruction on how to actually look like the people on-screen has kept Bennett hooked for years and improved her overall coordination. For someone whose only previous dance experience was square dancing in gym class, Bennett says she has learned to feel graceful, and she almost doesn't notice that there's a workout in there, too: "Then the next day, you realize how much your abs hurt."
Music is also the motivator for 25-year-old Hasina Rahman of Arlington, Va., who has become a Doonya die-hard since starting classes in 2011. "The songs they use are the newest Bollywood songs. I'll catch myself doing Doonya steps whenever I hear them," says Rahman, whose favorite move is the Bolly Tap. (Put one hand on your hip. Then put the other hand up in the air, and kick that leg out to the side.)
Doonya's been a family affair for Mindy Montgomery. The 58-year-old from Great Falls, Va., who has taken classes with her stepdaughter and her niece, finds the moves challenging both physically and mentally. "It doesn't come naturally to a 50-year-old white woman," she says. "But I think it's so beautiful. It's hard to resist."