While the rest of Philadelphia drifts into slumber at 3 a.m., a group of Penn students spend their twilight hours rehearsing, rehearsing, and rehearsing. Since the beginning of the school year, the university’s first and only all–male dance team, Penn Dhamaka, has been preparing nonstop for one weekend; more specifically, for three shows. This year, their sixteenth annual production “DMAK High” takes us back to the hallways of first days, class clowns, and detention—all while combining western dance styles with South Asian dance styles in their signature fashion. I was fortunate to attend their opening night this past Friday (2/15) to see what all of those hours and sweat were about.
I was not disappointed.
Having arrived early, I was the first one in the audience before the show. Several members of Dhamaka as well as their technical crew were rushing around, ensuring everything was functioning properly for what would be two hours of impressively high jumping, intensely charming facial expressions, and a lot of cheering from the crowd. Amongst these people was Rakesh Ravi (E ’21). Before the show, I was able to sit down with him and Chirag Manyapu (C, W ’19) to get to know what set this year’s team and theme apart from previous years.
“Every year the culture of the team is a little different, a different vibe. High school really fit the guys of the team this year: a little bit more goony and goofy,” says Chirag. He is a senior, and just like most of the dancers on the team, he joined his freshman year. Also like most of the others, he had no prior dance experience before coming to Penn. This fact will stun you upon watching the show.
The performance opened with an introduction video, setting the theme of DMAK High, as well as introducing the members of Dhamaka. The team swarmed in, sporting polos and letterman jackets, as well as an enthusiasm so contagious the audience continued hooting between pieces. The choreography was as cleanly executed as their smiles were radiant—the goofiness Chirag mentioned was evident. According to him and Rakesh, each member of Dhamaka puts together a part of the show. The Dhamaka boys view one another as family, and dedicate their time to working towards a fantastic performance. This past November, the team travelled to Austin, Texas to compete in Jhalak, a Bollywood fusion dance competition; they had been preparing for it since the summer. The success they found there pushed them towards making sure their showcase production three months later was perfect. The time the members spend together doesn’t end with competitions or rehearsals, however. The boys often hang out afterwards, either studying in Huntsman or relaxing in a high rise lounge.
“DMAK High” contains many comical elements, and the high school theme works extremely well for the guys. During the “First Crush” segment, one of the members gets denied by the girl of his dreams, and it is up to his teammates to console him. “You’ll always have your boys,” a voiceover declares in the background, as the energy picks up from rejected to conflagrant.
This fiery energy, said Chirag, was the reason he believes Dhamaka’s 2019 production sets itself apart from the rest. “It has some of the best choreography we’ve ever done, it’s something different.” Rakesh agreed and added that it incorporates a variety of new styles, such as contemporary dance. During the show, there is also a surprise piece from one of Penn’s other premiere dance troupes, Strictly Funk. They emerge as police during the house party scene following intermission, and move alongside the boys in their range of styles—from Garba to hip–hop. My favorite part? Watching Dhamaka dance Bhangra, a style originating from Punjab, to some of Drake’s most popular tracks. Their charismatic rhythm had me moving along to much of the music (even the Bollywood songs I couldn’t remember the lyrics to) and smiling along the way.
By the end of the two hours, there was not one member of the audience who wasn’t overwhelmed by how talented these boys were. After performing the piece they took to Austin, the team emerged for their bows, and the applause was deafening. The dancers all broke into hugs, both relieved and bittersweet that their opening night was over. And just like them, I found myself wishing "DMAK High" would never end.
If you missed the table of dancing boys on Locust Walk this past week, you can grab tickets to see “DMAK High” at the Iron Gate Theatre on Saturday, Feb. 16, for the 1:30 matinee show or the 7:30 evening performance. Tickets are $8 for daytime, $10 for night time and $2 extra at the door.