How can you compete against teams that make it to the top year after year? That’s the question that was running through my mind when I was captain of UNC Chapel Hill Chalkaa (2015-2017). Chalkaa was nine years old at the time, but had never truly made it on the map. I remember watching videos of teams like Northwestern Anubhav and The Men of Dance Project (MOD) and wondering, “how do they do it?”
In the summer of 2016 when Legends was announced, there seemed to be hope of making it to nationals. Legends had opened up a path for the underdog that did not exist before. My co-captains, Sajan Amin and Priya Desai, and I knew that for this upcoming season we had to change how we approached Chalkaa. While we didn’t realize it at the time, this shift in our mindset set us on the path towards Legends.
Bollywood Fanatics at our Best: The Theme
As captains, we spend our summer prepping for the upcoming season by choosing the theme and designing the set, costume and props. The first part of our mindset change was picking theme that was the right fit for us. Chalkaa has always had a familial, wholesome feel. Naturally, we decided to head down the classic Bollywood route and decided for 2016 that we would do Jodhaa Akbar. I still remember seeing the excitement in my teams eyes when they heard that the classic would be our set for the year. This theme fit us like a glove. Check one: the team was on board, next up: getting into comps.
It’s not you it’s me, but it’s really you: Rejections and Waitlists
To me, try-out videos are the worst part of the season. It was the biggest challenge for us. The pressure was high to get into competitions, and I felt as though all the videos we took that year did not do us justice. After a certain point of filming, everyone was exhausted, frustrated, hungry, tired and ready to go home. Unfortunately, that showed in the competitions we got into. For the 2016-2017 season, Chalkaa only got into one Legends Partner Comp (PC): Infusion. Our hopes for going to nationals were shattered because the ELO point system required us to get into at least two PCs to be in the rankings for Legends.
The Little Engine that Could: A Shift in Mindset
Now, here’s a piece of advice to any future underdogs: don’t let this stop you, it didn’t stop us. Even though it felt like a failure, we had two non-partner comps for the fall season that we were going to compete in. We scratched our old mentality of “We are here to get into Legends” because quite frankly it wasn’t going to happen. Instead, the rejections and waitlists were a friendly reminder of why we were all here in the first place. It was about being together on stage sharing our story while (and as cheesy as it sounds) dancing our hearts out.
How did we hold this mentality throughout the season? It all started at Dance Ke Deewane (DKD). DKD was our second comp for the season. I remember us coming to that competition just wanting to have fun. It was sentimental for me since DKD had been my first competition that I had ever attended as a first-year back in 2014. After the mixer, the entire team huddled in our hotel room for our pre-show day meeting. Ashish Yamdagni, who was one of our liaisons at the time, suggested that we try something: he told us to take turns going around the room sharing why we dance. Within moments we were in tears learning about the love that our team had for one another and our stories with dance. Some teammates were dancing with us for the last time (even though, once a Chalkie, always a Chalkie). By the end of the hour, we were all sobbing. I don’t think I’ve ever given more hugs in a single sitting. We were emotional out of our love for each other and our passion for dance. This quickly became a Chalkaa tradition: to share why we dance the night before our performance. It reminded us why we were here and reinforced our new mindset. It brought the passion to the stage and fostered our team chemistry. It helped energize us to move others with our set, just as much as dance emotionally (and quite literally) moved us. The next day we brought in our second trophy of the season, 3rd place at DKD.
With this change in mindset, we saw an exponential difference in our team. Practices became filled with laughs and fun instead of frustration and stress. They ran more efficiently, which the other captains and I were ecstatic about. What made us strong that year was not only the versatile background of our dancers, but their willingness to grow and try different styles. People were meeting outside of practice to strengthen their weak spots. They would come to practice with new ideas to incorporate into the set. Now with the “pressure” of Legends off our backs we were thriving at practice and designing a set that fit us. It wasn’t about trying to recreate what others had done anymore, it was now about creating something unique of our own. We included our go to styles: classical, bhangra and hip hop. We added a style that was less common in the fusion circuit: jhumar. That ended up becoming our most complimented and well executed segment of the year.
Don’t Lose Hope, Miracles Happen:
It was exciting to share the stage with other phenomenal teams at the non-PCs where we ended up placing and getting good critiques on how to take our set to the next level. Here’s another piece of advice: Partner Comp or not, take every competition seriously. The critiques the judges provide will give you guidance on how to take your set to the next level. I’m so glad we did because what happened next was unexpected. With a stroke of luck, we found out that we had made it off the waitlist at two Legends Partner Competitions: Buckeye Mela and Dhamaal. We were super excited and reminded ourselves not to lose sight of our new and improved mindset. Remember why you’re here, give it all you got and regardless of what happens next you know you enjoyed every moment of it. As excited as we were, we had to hustle.
Incorporating Feedback: Take it with a Grain of Salt
We only had four weeks to incorporate feedback. One thing I learned was to take feedback in a way that will grow your team. Judges bring great expertise to the table, but captains know if that will work for your team or not. It’s important to challenge your team because if it works it shows, but if there is something that was brought to the table and you know it won’t float, it’s okay to scratch it.
On top of that we were short by about five dancers prior to Buckeye Mela than we had before. This called for many things: more team tryouts, revamping our formations, hyping up our mix, and adding the “wow” factor. I still remember in December Sajan, Priya and I practically spent winter break together with our DJ, Kanwar. Some feedback the judges had given us was that our choreo did not complement the musicality of mix. We had initially created a mix that was common in the circuit, but didn’t really suit us. That winter we re-branded the mix to match our vibe and the choreo was revamped to match our style. When January rolled around we had three weeks to Mela. We had prop building parties on the weekends where so many great memories were made but also forever covered all my belongings in glitter (I still find it in random parts of my closet till this day). Another two cents: get the team involved and invested, it’s so much fun to be revamping a set together and a good bonding experience that builds team chemistry. Yes, captains know the big picture, but incorporating team feedback adds the “wow” factor.
Judges always told us, you always want a set that grows upward on a growth curve (that positive slope for my math nerds). We were told that our flatlines were missing the wow factor, fluctuations were missing cohesiveness and declines were missing energy. Our team revamps helped us capture the wow factor, we countered our fluctuations with the musicality of our mix, and also complimented our choreo. We brought back energy in our declines with the Chalkaa diet! Stay healthy folks. Eat your breakfast, lunch and dinner, drink loads of water and try to get some sleep. I know it’s tough in college but you have to try. Dance should be fun, not a stress factor. We held each other accountable for eating meals and drinking loads of water.
Starstruck: Legends Partner Comps
We were walking into Buckeye Mela and star teams that we have always looked up to are everywhere. A couple to shout out were MOD and Anubhav. I was ecstatic to be sharing the stage with them. My favorite thing about Chalkaa is that we are a huge family, and we love growing it. Mixers can sometimes have an aggressive competitive environment, but Chalkaa has always been great at creating long lasting friendships at mixers. Yes, we are at a competition, but it’s healthy competition. I’m so proud of how we would cheer and shout-out the friends we had just made at the mixer the day before during their performance. We were there to have a good time and share the stage with some legends. Little did we know this was the beginning of our journey as well.
Buckeye had never announced 3rd place in the past, but I still vividly remember them calling out our name. My team froze and looked at each other. We cried, we hugged, we jumped, we screamed. We couldn't believe it. I was so proud of us. I looked at my co-caps with the biggest smile on my face and my heart racing. All I could think was, “we got the Chalkaa formula: do what you love and show it!” We continued that mentality at Dhamaal, which was the following weekend, and brought home a 2nd place.
Andddd, here’s the plot twist
It might sound all like sunshine and rainbows to this point. In reality life was catching up to us. Back to back competitions had us physically drained. People were getting sick and midterm season was causing frustration. Practices were getting inefficient and more stressful than fun. I was scared we were losing our sparkle. This leads to my next point, take time to heal. Competitions take a toll on your body, and post-comp depression is a thing. As captains we finally had better direction on where we had to go, but we were all burnt out. We started surprising our team with ending practices early. “Go get some rest. Catch up on your sleep. Eat some food. Finish that paper. Call your mom. You do you.” It helps, trust me. We all need to recalibrate our lives sometimes.
We were now in the ranks for Legends. For Infusion, we found out that if we managed 2nd, we would make it to nationals. Even though we tried to control our thoughts, it was crazy thinking that we went from not even being eligible for Legends to now being a contender. When things seemed back on track we found out that Sajan, my co-lead, wouldn’t be able to make Infusion. Another team member, MJ, who played my brother Sujamal in our set, had to become my Akbar for this competition. That also meant either replacing him in his songs or re-doing all our formations. Once again, the versatility and flexibility of our team is one of our strong points. Folks volunteered to step into songs/step out of songs to accommodate the last minute change. We were nervous. We had a new segment to showcase to the audience prior to Legends and wanted to get feedback from the judges. We brought in 2nd place at Infusion and were told by the judges that they loved our chemistry on stage. Chalkaa’s most common feedback from judges that season was, “We can tell that you all were having a blast on stage together and that’s what made it fun to watch.” After the judges meeting, Priya and I headed back to meet our team when an older couple from the audience stopped us. The husband said, “You made my wife cry. This is her favorite movie of all time and you moved her by your performance. Great job.” It was the most heart-warming feeling ever. We wanted to put on a show to captivate the audience and it was reassuring to hear that we had succeeded.
Look Ma, We Made It!
I still remember the Legends rep coming into our room to announce that we had made it to the national championship. We were a young team that year with only three seniors. Now we were being told that we had the opportunity to dance on the national stage? Sharing “Why we dance” at every competition brought enhanced passion on stage. The chemistry within my team on and off stage put on a moving show. The creativity of our DJ produced a mix that complemented our choreo. Sajan, Priya and I did everything we could to not lose sight of our mindset. Chalkaa made it to Legends because we shined as us on stage. We didn’t try to re-create what was already done and we stayed genuine throughout the entire process. With that we brought in 6 trophies, 4 superlatives awards and made it to nationals for the first time in Chalkaa history.
Looking out the window while landing in LA felt like the beginning of a Disney movie. Was I dreaming? We flew into LA a couple of days early to explore and recover from the intensive practice week to let the choreo set in our heads. One of our seniors, José Cisneros, was being featured on the Legends documentary about his amazing story in the circuit. It was our underdog moment of stardom. At the mixer we got to meet the other teams and reconnect with friends we had made along the way. The night before the show we went around and shared what we loved, for one last time. It was very emotional since it was the last time some of us would be dancing with Chalkaa, including me. I was going to really miss this team because they had become my family. We had been through thick and thin together and I couldn’t believe it was coming to an end.
On show day we were first in the line up. It’s always tough being first because you are the guinea pig for the tech team and are setting the bar for the show. If I’m being honest, we were all pretty upset about being first. We had our superstition in our heads that if we got either before or after intermission or last in the line-up, we would place. We had never gotten first before. Don’t let the superstitions get to you, just have fun. Chalkaa shined on stage that day. I remember when our set ended I was looking up at the lights as they slowly faded away. That was a wrap.
Even though the placings weren’t where we wanted them to be, we were overwhelmed with the love and the feedback we got from other teams. To this day I have folks come up to me and other Chalkies asking, “Were you on Chalkaa Jodhaa Akbar year? I loved your set! We listen to your mix all the time!” Hearing feedback like that warms my heart. Chalkaa had made it on the maps by staying true to ourselves. I couldn’t be more proud. And that leads to my last piece of advice: don’t forget why you dance and why you are on the team. When that passion and drive shows on stage, your set will automatically be taken to the next level. That’s how we wrote our story, how will you write yours?
Shatakshi Shekhar works at Clarkston Consulting. She was a former captain and lead for Chalkaa from 2015-2017. Under her captaincy, Chalkaa won 9 trophies, 4 superlatives and made it to Legends for the first time in Chalkaa history. Watch their 2017 performance here.