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Meet Urbanista, the All-Girl Street Dance Group

Urban dance is frequently misunderstood. Whether it is portrayed in rap and hip hop music videos or simply on street corners around the world, the image of urban dance is either glamorous, gritty or somewhere in between. Street culture is a vast and often ambiguous concept with the glorification of poverty and violence through street gangs lining up alongside something as innocuous as break dancing.

Born and raised in the bustling Mumbai suburb of Bandra, Priya Gonsalves has been devoted to dance from very early on in her life. She has been into street dance for a very long time and claims to be one of the first women, if not the first woman to be a part of street dancing in the country. “I learned a lot about dancing by just dancing all the time and what I used to do a lot as a teenager was just go to the clubs every week and dance.”

Priya Gonsalves strikes a pose at the Bacardi NH7 Weekender

Dancing is what she chose to do with her life and she doesn’t regret it at all. “I had quite a few jobs over the years but I never held on to any of them, dancing was a constant in my life and I just stuck with it.” Not only did she stick with it, she got rather good at it and started to get a lot more people involved in it. Last year, Gonsalves founded India’s first all-girl street dance group, Urbanista. The group consists of Gonsalves, Giselle John, Kezia Fernandes and Simone Louis and Payal Balse. Urbanista have been performing all over the country and demand for their act is growing.

Gonsalves also founded another dance project called Syntheskillz which aims to promote urban/street dance culture in India. Gonsalves got together with her boyfriend, Prosenjit Kundu who has been an influential and prolific street dancer for years now.

Their newest initiative is called Blame It On The Boogie and it started on December 20 at the Cool Chef Cafe in Worli, Mumbai (where Colombian graffiti artist Jaba recently left his mark). Blame It On the Boogie is a party that invites street dancers from all over the country to come and dance their hearts out. We spoke to Priya Gonsalves to learn more about all her dance projects and what dancing is all about according to her. (Check out the video of Urbanista performing at Enigma, JW Marriott, Mumbai below.)

What is Urbanista all about? Do you dance with other crews or have other dance projects?
Well, Urbanista is India’s first all-girl street dance group, which I founded in May 2011. I have been doing different styles of freestyle street dance expression since I was a child, and growing up I think I was probably the only Indian girl from my generation doing this. I’m 27 years old now, and when I was in my teens and early twenties, and street dance was getting a little more popular, I was literally the only girl doing styles like hip hop and later house waacking, etc; thanks to the influence of my partner, Prosenjit Kundu who I met at the time.

So, the dance scene was dominated by men, and I always wanted to explore feminine energy as well, in relation with street dance. I also wanted to encourage young girls to feel empowered in this community. So I had the idea of creating a girls group, and as fate would have it I judged the Malhar (the annual college festival of St Xavier’s college, Bombay) street dance event in 2010 and came across these talented young girls, and they reminded me of myself at that age. They were keen on the idea and just like that Urbanista was born and we had our first performance in May 2011, and have been working and dancing steadily ever since.

I don’t have another group as such, but at times I do dance with the boys just as Priya Lisa. I also have a community project called Syntheskillz with Prosenjit Kundu, to promote street dance culture in India.

Urbanista performs at the Pepsi Dub Station at the Bacardi NH7 Weekender

What is your inspiration for dance? 
I could answer this question for days, as it really would go all the way back to my childhood, to now. As far as what inspires me, I mean I think of inspiration as transferable energy. It exists within all of us, and all around us, and we utilize it and express it in different manifestations. So I mean I can’t really say that one particular source inspires me as an artist, I was born like this and loving to express myself through dance and certain experiences led me to find street dance.

One was at the age of 4, I watched the movie Breakin (watch the film here), which is an ’80s street dance film that my grandparents got us from London, that I would say strongly influenced me. My brother was a Michael Jackson impersonator and I think he actually got me dancing as far (back) as my childhood. I would also watch music videos all day long when I was young, and go to nightclubs as a teenager every week and dance.

Street dance is quite different from other kinds of dance but how does it combine with our urban culture? 
I mean all dance is unique in its own way. I don’t really get into thinking so much about myself as that culturally different from the rest of the world, so it’s hard for me to comment on the unique landscape of India as a whole. I think India is diverse and growing rapidly and it is only natural that the youth has an interest in street dance, like kids in any other part of the world. Dance and music are universal concepts and they are not very hard to experience or understand, as they directly speak to the soul.

Prosenjit Kundu laying down some moves on the street!

Can you tell us a bit more about Blame it on the Boogie?
We have wanted to throw a jam like this for a long time, and finally we have set it up. Personally for me and a lot of other dancers, dancing at a party/club/jam is probably the most fun. It is non-competitive, you have non-stop music, great atmosphere and an audience. However, the main difference between a dancer’s party and a regular party is you need space to dance and you usually create an informal circle and go in solo and boogie.

So, its not necessarily the main goal to ‘promote the dance’, that happens automatically, more like a chance for dancers to come together and do what they love most, and share the experience with like-minded individuals. We often do this at clubs anyways, but the problem is we hijack the dance floor, and some dancers can’t afford clubs. This way it’s our party so we can use the floor as long as we want.

Street dance is still fairly out of the mainstream in terms of coverage and appreciation. Would Urbanista be a part of a niche dance that could turn out to be just a fad?
I don’t think that Street dance is still niche in India. Maybe not everyone is completely educated about the details and the underground events, but it’s all over television and dance studios in its more commercial form. It is a huge community and is very popular. So no, I don’t think it’s a fad.

What do you think street dance is going to be like in India and do you have any other plans or ventures coming up to support the growth of street dancing?
The community is a lot larger than just my ventures. So yes, it does lie in projects such as mine, but also a large network of hardworking individuals that are promoting this dance all over India and are very passionate and talented, and have done great work and large scale events with very limited means.

I am constantly working on ideas and of course I have to make time to practice dancing which should always remain the main focus, because you got to keep working on your skill. That being said the future and the present are both very promising for street dance, there is a lot of international support for our community and I think it’s very exciting to watch its progress.

Check out this video of Urbanista’s performance at Celebrate Bandra 2011 below.

Photos by: Alexandre Dupeyron and Ram Kumar Photography

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