Workout instep with Bollywood

  • Courtney Trosin, center, and Viki Caruso, both of Greenfield, dance last month during Doonya, an aerobic Bollywood dance class at the YMCA in Greenfield. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Instructor Aisha Russell leads during Doonya, an aerobic Bollywood dance class at the YMCA in Greenfield. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Courtney Trosin of Greenfield dances during Doonya, an aerobic Bollywood dance class, at the YMCA in Greenfield.

For The Recorder
Published: 4/12/2017 1:59:50 PM

Aisha Russell is a blur of motion with her knees bent in a semi squat, her feet taking tiny, quick steps as she darts from side to side. Arms raised in front of her, elbows bent, she makes circular motions with her hands as if she is washing a window.

A Hindi pop songs blasts from the speakers in the exercise room at the YMCA in Greenfield on this Saturday morning where more than a dozen women are following Russell’s lead.

“To the left. ... To the right,” she calls into the microphone attached to her headset.

The group is engaged in a high-intensity aerobic workout called Doonya, a blend of western and Indian dance inspired by movies made by Bollywood — the Mumbai-based film industry.

It is a relatively new exercise routine, which works nearly all the muscles in the body.

The women in the class have clearly been here before as they move fluidly in unison, puffing out their chests and twirling their wrists above their heads to the drum beat filling the room. Some say the exercise is just a side benefit to the fun that comes from feeling like they are on a movie set in Mumbai, although no one is wearing an embroidered sari; most are dressed in Spandex and T-shirts.

“You are really absorbed in the dance and in the moment,” says Gayatri Guhanarayan, 32, of Holyoke, who comes to the class every Saturday morning. “There is this feeling of lightness. You forget that you are working out.”

The students start marching in place, with a bit of a bounce in their steps, their arms reaching up toward the ceiling.

“Shake it up a little,” Russell says.

She stretches one arm above her head and makes circles as if swinging a lasso. “Kick up the legs,” she instructs, as she moves to the left, still swinging the invisible lasso. Her other arm is positioned just in front of her, hand in a fist, like she is holding a horse’s reins.

“You are focusing on your balance, your core strength, you are really working the whole body,” she says.

The women quickly transition from move to move.

In another moment, they flex their leg muscles, moving in and out of lunges, with their arms again stretched above their heads, forming a half moon.

“The energy here is awesome,” says Abby Farrar, 41, who drives from Chicopee nearly every week to take the class. “The hour goes by really quickly.”

The movements are punctuated with symbolic hand gestures called mudras. The deer mudra is one of the most popular of these gestures in the class, in which two fingers are pinched together with the thumb to form a deer snout, while the pinkie and pointer finger stand up like ears.

“I’m learning about a culture that I didn’t know about and getting a workout,” says student Jackie Stein, 39, of Lake Pleasant. “It is also so nice to have an enthusiastic person lead the class.”

Russell, 30, is the only Doonya instructor teaching in Massachusetts and one of only about 50 throughout the United States. But through ongoing trainings, these numbers are growing all the time, says Rohan Sheth, Bolly Hero CEO of the Doonya company based in New York City and Washington, D.C.

Russell, who lives in Greenfield, started leading classes at the Greenfield YMCA last October, after teaching for two years in New York and New Hampshire. She works remotely for Planned Parenthood in New York, which has allowed her to move to New England for the change of scenery she was seeking.

She says she fell in love with the Pioneer Valley and not long after settling in Greenfield, pitched the class to the YMCA. Now, she teaches two sessions a week. She hopes to do a workshop in Northampton this summer.

The class, she says, is similar to Zumba, which is a choreographed cardio-dance class that pulls from the dance styles of Latin America.

“It is a little bit different because you are working a lot more on your balance than you would in Zumba,” she says.

Since Guhanarayan grew up in India and always has had a fondness for dance, she was ecstatic to discover Doonya through an online Indian dance meet up group last year. She says she doesn’t mind making the 45-minute drive from her home every week. Guhanarayan, who is also an exercise science lecturer at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, says she likes Doonya because it is a more varied workout than taking a run or using an elliptical machine at the gym. And, she says, it keeps her arms and thighs toned.

“I get my inner Bollywood actress out. I feel like I get to just be in that moment and be in the dance,” she says.

Each of the dances has been carefully choreographed and screened by the Doonya company, which was created about 10 years ago in Washington, D.C., by two American women of Indian decent, Priya Pandya and Kajal Desai.

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