Gurdeep Pandher doesn’t recommend eating before his Bhangra dance class, but that warning didn’t come until after I had already finished a plate piled high with curried vegetables and rice.
Food isn’t usually offered before the class, but this was the first time that it had been put on at the Association franco-yukonnaise.
After food was done and the tables were rolled away, Pandher closed the drapes and plugged in his iPod.
Standing at the front of the room sporting a bright blue turban, Pandher called the class to attention.
The first dance move seemed easy enough, but after a few minutes of holding my hands in the air and shrugging my shoulders in time with the music they started to feel a little strained.
It’s a pretty common reaction, said Pandher, who describes Bhangra as a natural alternative to aerobics.
“That’s why it has so many health benefits,” he said. “When you work-out on a treadmill you start to sweat after 15 or 20 minutes, but in this dace you start to sweat after five minutes. Some people even start to sweat after two minutes.”
Pandher, 35, who works as a web designer, credits Bhangra with helping to relieve work-related aches and pains.
“I work a lot on computers and due to overuse of my right arm with too much mousing I had pain in my right arm and shoulder that was terrible,” he said, “I went to doctor and he said do some exercises.
“This dancing really helped me and I don’t feel that pain right now.”
Pandher first started taking Bhangra classes as a 16-year-old living in the northern Indian city of Ludhiana.
Bhangra is a catchall for a number of Punjabi folkdances that were traditionally performed by men after a harvest.
“It originated about 400 years ago,” said Pandher “This is dance of farmers after harvesting wheat crops and selling at the grain market.
“When they made money they used to dance Bhangra for celebration. That’s why this is such a powerful dance, because farmers they are always tough guys and they created this tough dance.”
The dance isn’t limited to harvest time any more.
“We dance it at weddings, at parties, in every celebration, so it’s very important for everyone to learn this dance professionally.”
Pandher stopped dancing Bhangra when he immigrated to Canada in 2006.
He first moved to Squamish, B.C. but there weren’t any Bhangra classes there. Instead he started taking ballet.
Pandher lived in Squamish for four years and then moved to Saskatchewan.
After visiting Whitehorse on vacation in June 2011, he made his mind up to move north.
“I just found everyone so friendly,” he said.
He arrived in Whitehorse in September 2012.
“I’m planning on staying here,” said Pandher. “I like it. It’s a bit chilly but it’s good.”
But it’s not always easy to live far away, he said.
“I’m making sacrifices by staying away from my parents and siblings. I miss them a lot, but still I feel happy here because I got so many friends,” said Pandher. “I would say I have hundreds of friends in this town and they’re all beautiful.”
Pandher wasn’t always so positive about things.
When he first moved to Canada it was very difficult, he said.
“It was a huge change,” he said. “I was crying, I was missing my family and if you go to my Facebook page you’ll find those things reflected in my words.”
In an effort to deal with the loneliness Pandher started posting poetry on his Facebook page.
It now has more than 20,000 “likes.”
“When I started my page two years ago, I didn’t know that I would grab so many fans from all over the world and after having so many fans I feel that everybody goes through painful emotional struggle somehow, it doesn’t matter where he or she is.”
Expressing himself and connecting with people through art are key to his positive outlook, he said.
“I feel that my poetry and my dancing help me a lot because when I write poetry and I put it on Facebook, thousands of people read that poetry and send me their feedback,” said Pandher. “It’s the same in dancing.
“When I dance, I feel emotional energy running between me and my students and I listen to their feedback. It makes me happy.”
Pandher started teaching Bhangra classes in the first week of January. Within a month, he had about 16 people a class.
He often starts the class with a short primer on Punjabi language and culture.
Promoting cross-cultural dialogue is important to him. Canada’s multicultural reputation is one of the main reasons he chose to come.
“It’s good to have these kind of differences,” said Pandher. “It makes our lives so colourful.
“If there is just one type of people in the world, our lives would be so boring.”
He now does a class at the Canada Games Centre’s wellness studio every Sunday at 1 p.m. and for the last couple months he’s been teaching classes on Friday evenings at various places around town.
This Friday he wants to start doing classes outdoors at Shipyards Park.
“This is very fast dance and people can dance outside – if there’s minus five or minus six temperature, that’s no problem,” said Pandher. “If it’s minus 20, then we can’t.”
The Friday classes start at 7 p.m., weather permitting. The cost is $10, but it’s free for kids.
Contact Josh Kerr at