From snowy Yukon, a Punjabi dance warms Canadian hearts

Christian Kuntz/Courtesy of Gurdeep Pandher
Gurdeep Pandher, shown here near Whitehorse, Yukon, where he lives, posts videos and photos of himself dancing bhangra, an ancient dance of Punjabi farmers, in an effort to spread joy and positivity across Canada amid the pandemic.

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On the winter solstice, in a bright blue sweater, an orange turban, and brown snow boots, Gurdeep Pandher posted a video of himself online doing what he calls a “happy dance”: arms to the sky, knees high, and the broadest of smiles. This is what he does in the snow-covered forest behind his cabin near Whitehorse, Yukon.

Mr. Pandher has 42,000-plus Twitter followers, 75% of whom arrived only since the pandemic, who tune in to watch him dance bhangra, originally a farmer’s dance in Punjab. Mr. Pandher has been dancing it since he was a child, and he says there’s no surprise to him that it’s caught on. “If you’re dancing bhangra, and you are not happy, that is not bhangra, even if you are doing all the moves perfectly,” he says.

Mr. Pandher is holding a national concert – virtually – on Jan. 16 to showcase his work. Many people would benefit from tuning in, says Peter Lovatt, the author of “The Dance Cure.” But there is something especially compelling about the synchrony of dance in today’s climate. “When people move together in synchrony, they report trusting the other person more,” Dr. Lovatt says.

Why We Wrote This

Canadian winters can be cold and bleak, all the more so when they coincide with a pandemic. But one man is using the color and joy of Punjabi dance to stave off the seasonal doldrums.

He has led firefighters and police officers to the rhythms of bhangra – a centuries-old dance that hails from the farming fields of Punjab. He has danced in front of Canada’s Parliament in Ottawa and amid crashing waves of the country’s Pacific Coast.

But these days, Gurdeep Pandher has more fans than he ever has – by posting videos of himself dancing in the snow-covered forest behind his cabin near Whitehorse in Yukon, Canada’s northwesternmost territory.

At this time of year, it’s not until about 11 a.m. that the sun comes out, filtering through the trees and drawing him outdoors. “It looks so beautiful, to me it looks just like magic,” he says. “I do feel like I live in a winter wonderland.”

Why We Wrote This

Canadian winters can be cold and bleak, all the more so when they coincide with a pandemic. But one man is using the color and joy of Punjabi dance to stave off the seasonal doldrums.

On the winter solstice last month, in a bright blue sweater, an orange turban, and brown snow boots, Mr. Pandher posted a new video of himself doing what he calls a “happy dance”: arms raising to the sky, knees as high as they go, and the broadest of smiles. To his followers, he wrote on Twitter: “If you see winter blues in the coming weeks, kick them away with some dance moves!”

And his followers – all 42,000-plus of them, 75% of whom arrived only since the pandemic – seem to be listening. On this day, an iteration of what his fans write with every new video he posts, one gushed: “Thank you. I can feel your joy. Keep sharing please!”

Or another, “Gurdeep you cheer me up no end, thank you!”

“You have to smile”

Bhangra began as a farmer’s dance in Punjab to celebrate a good harvest, but it’s found its way across the globe, from trendy DJ fusions to entertainment on basketball courts of North America. Mr. Pandher has been dancing it since he was a child, and he says there’s no surprise to him that it’s caught on – for its upbeat sounds and its core value of joy. “If you’re dancing bhangra, and you are not happy, that is not bhangra, even if you are doing all the moves perfectly,” he says.

That’s why he believes his videos, one after the other, keep going viral during the pandemic, when there is so much darkness and heaviness.

“There’s a Punjabi saying that when there’s a lot of darkness, we value brightness more. And I’ve noticed that, a lot of the sort of people who never cared about watching my videos before, like lawyers, or politicians, or diplomats, are sending me messages,” he says.

“Before maybe they didn’t feel like something light was professional, or important, but now in these difficult times they realize the importance of someone dancing to create happiness, someone who’s preaching that kindness is important, what our ancestors from centuries have been preaching.”

He’s not the only one feeling a new buzz around bhangra. Harshjot Singh, who founded Power Bhangra with his wife in Montreal, is these days offering popular bhangra fitness classes over Zoom. It’s a physical workout, but he says it’s also the culture of bhangra that he believes keeps his students – who span Canada and even North America – signing up. “You have to smile, it’s just the rule of the dance. And as students learn about it, slowly and steadily, it just comes naturally. Our students just start smiling once they are dancing.”

Mr. Singh has also been dancing since he was a child and represented his university in Punjab in the intense world of bhangra – the  equivalent of playing on a Canadian school’s hockey team, he says – and he sees potential for growth in the ancient dance form in Canada, his new home.

Mr. Pandher’s social media following certainly hasn’t hurt. “It makes me super happy that someone is taking the lead doing it and bringing so much attention to this dance form and culture,” says Mr. Singh of his colleague.

Trust through dance

Mr. Pandher is holding a national annual concert – virtually – on Jan. 16 to showcase his work and the fusions he has created with other artists.

Many people would benefit from tuning in, says Peter Lovatt, the author of new book “The Dance Cure.” He says that dancing, unlike just plain fitness, has four key benefits in the realms of social, thinking, emotions, and the physical - which, fittingly, spell STEP.

All of those areas are suffering during the pandemic, and everyone benefits from things like physical activity or disconnecting from the Internet. But there is something especially compelling about the synchrony of dance in today’s climate. “When people dance in synchrony, it increases how much they like each other,” Dr. Lovatt says. “When people move together in synchrony, they report trusting the other person more.”

This is true, he says, even if you are doing a Power Bhangra class on Zoom, or watching Mr. Pandher dancing on Twitter or Instagram.

In the past 15 years as a teacher, Mr. Pandher, who immigrated to Canada and worked in IT before pursuing a degree in education, has focused much of his dancing on breaking down cultural boundaries.

When he became a Canadian citizen in 2011 – which meant losing his Indian citizenship – he traveled across his adopted country before settling in Yukon, the last stop on his journey and the place that reminded him most of his village in Punjab.

Those travels sealed a key lesson for him. He danced with those from different faiths, cultures, or different subcultures in the same community, but he found that everyone was essentially the same once they started dancing.

“I realized that everything is in our mind, we create differences that don’t actually exist and the more we start thinking about these differences the more we confirm that they exist,” he says. “Instead we need to find the goodness in people. And that’s what I’m doing through my dance work.”

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