St. John’s all-female South Asian dance group, RAAZ (“secret” in Hindu), recently placed first in their division at PhillyFest, an inter-collegiate dance competition this semester.
PhillyFest, which was held Jan. 30 in Philadelphia, is one of the largest South Asian dance competitions in the country. RAAZ was victorious against other top university teams, including the University of Virginia and Drexel University, in the category of Female Fusion.
RAAZ mixes a variety of dance styles including classical, Bollywood and even hip-hop. The girls work to blend Eastern and Western influences as they play on the strengths of each dancer.
“As the competitions get more competitive, we’ve had to incorporate new elements and we’ve started working on stunt moves,” said Praneeta Nagraj, a freshman who will be secretary of the group in the fall semester.
Each year RAAZ chooses a theme to base the choreography and music choices for their dance around.
This year their theme was “orchestra,” and their routine included someone dressed as a conductor and a stunt in which the group transformed into a tambourine-playing monkey.
“Having a theme is like having a thesis for your paper,” said Nagraj. She also said that the group can receive more points if they successfully blend the theme into their routine.
RAAZ, was established in 2002 by students who were looking for a way to connect with others who shared their passion for dance. They have been exclusively female since the beginning and say it’s one of the ways they stand out from other dance crews.
Tryouts for RAAZ is a highly competitive process that involves two rounds of cuts and the opportunity to show off both dance ability and choreography skills. Potential members audition in small groups and are given the chance to show how they cooperate with a team of dancers.
Some girls show up with nearly 14 years of experience; others have never taken a dance class in their lives. Precision is very important to RAAZ, and they pride themselves on how identical each performer looks onstage.
“Once the new girls start moving as one, you know they’re progressing,” said Nagraj.In preparation for competitions such as PhillyFest, RAAZ spends time choreographing and practicing every day in whatever campus space is available.
“Our members are really dedicated and get really good at time management,” said senior Michelle Abbas, the current treasurer of RAAZ.
Abbas said that it’s difficult to coordinate everyone’s schedules but they have learned the value of time and how to balance their other obligations with their commitment to RAAZ.
The thrill of competition is what drives their commitment to the group.
“When you step onto the stage and you hear a thousand people chanting for you, you have this adrenaline rush,” said Abbas. “That is our eight minutes and no one else’s.”
As a cultural organization, RAAZ regularly collaborates with other groups on campus who have similar goals.
In January, they performed at “The Fight After the Storm” event, along with PARE and the African Student Association. The dance showcase raised money for people in Taiwan and the Philippines who were affected by natural disasters in the summer of 2009.
In September they were also featured at a coffeehouse event on campus that was dubbed “Bollywood Night,” where they shared with St. John’s the art of Bollywood dancing.
RAAZ’s student activities advisor, Nashia Whittenburg, praises the hard work that RAAZ puts into their programming efforts both on and off campus.
“This group is a perfect example of growth, unity, culture and education,” said Whittenburg. “I enjoy listening to the incoming freshmen discuss their plans to audition for RAAZ, and to hear of their success through their competitions.”
She recently received a request from another university asking RAAZ to perform and said this shows how RAAZ reaches beyond St. John’s and into the community.
The next opportunity to see RAAZ in action is coming up on April 24, at “Chaahat,” the annual cultural show put on by the Indian Sub-Continent Student Organization.