Miami Mayhem blends dancing competition, social events, philanthropy together

University of Florida's GatorRaas takes the stage for the UM Indian Student Association's annual Miami Mayhem garba/raas dance competition Saturday evening at the Julius Littman Performing Arts Theater. Shreya Chidarala // Staff Photographer
University of Florida’s GatoRaas takes the stage for the UM Indian Student Association’s annual Miami Mayhem garba and raas dance competition Saturday evening at the Julius Littman Performing Arts Theater. Shreya Chidarala // Staff Photographer

On Saturday night, the stage at the Julius Littman Performing Arts Theater echoed with sounds of clattering metallic sequins, rhythmic pounding of feet against the floor and wooden batons cracking against each other, all set to the beat of vigorous Indian music.

The ninth-annual Miami Mayhem dance competition, which took place this weekend in North Miami Beach, spotlighted garba and raas dance teams from schools around the nation. Garba and raas are high-energy, rhythmic Indian dance forms from the Gujarat state in western India. Miami Mayhem is just one of many competitions on the national intercollegiate raas competition circuit.

This year, the Mayhem committee selected eight teams out of 36 auditioning schools. The final lineup consisted of GatoRaas (University of Florida), Dirty South Dandiya (University of Texas, Austin), GW Raas (George Washington University), Ricochet Raas (Virginia Commonwealth University), Drexel Dandiya (Drexel University), EntouRAAS (University of Maryland, College Park), UMBC Raascals (University of Maryland, Baltimore County) and RU Raga (Rutgers University) to compete for cash prizes totaling $3,000.

Special guest performers at the event included Georgia Tech’s fusion a capella group (Taal Tadka) and the University of Central Florida Bollywood-fusion dance team (Knights Kangna), as well as Tufaan, UM’s own fusion a cappella group and the Hurricane Bhangra dance team.

Mayhem is a bid competition for the Raas All-Stars (RAS) National Championship, the final competition that invites 18 of the best teams from around the nation. Points earned at Mayhem will count toward eligibility for the championship. The judging panel consisted of intercollegiate raas alumni from NYU, Purdue and UM’s own garba and raas team – SwaggeRaas.

“We’re usually one of the most selective competitions,” said UM junior Karthik Narayanan, one of the event-registration chairs. “The field is historically very, very strong. Those are the teams we attract.”

Past winners of RAS Nationals have included UF GatoRaas and GW Raas.

The weekend-long event, which consisted of social mixers between the dance teams on Friday and the official competition on Saturday, was organized by a committee of 54 UM students. The event also had the support of community sponsors like Kaplan, TV Asia, Desh Videsh magazine, Insomnia Cookies and KIND Snacks to help cover the total event costs, which totaled upward of $15,000.

“Because we accommodate so many people from so many different places, keeping people together and making sure everything’s running on schedule is very hard,” said Poonam Patel, one of the Mayhem executive chairs. “That’s something that’s been a challenge every year. We have buses going from the hotel to the performance venue and there’s always traffic in Miami.”

The visiting students were impressed by the accommodations provided at Mayhem.

“The best thing about Mayhem is the hospitality,” said Akshita Singh, a senior at UT Austin and team captain of Dirty South Dandiya. “Everyone’s here to work hard and play hard, and that’s one of the best things – they know that we’re here for a specific goal but they also understand that we’re here to have fun. And everything that’s been happening backstage, like there’s an emergency crew that’s there to help us – it’s just great.”

“Mayhem’s been going on for so long and it’s so organized,” said Dhruv Shah, one of the captains of RU Raga and senior at Rutgers University. “We can always count on the team liaisons. They are the best.”

More than 400 spectators were in attendance on the night of the performance along with around 200 competitors. All proceeds from the event went to Aahana India, a non-profit organization that works in both the U.S. and India to provide educational resources to disabled children and to empower communities in India.

“This year, we’re proud of just being able to give back to our community and where we’re from, and raising awareness about Indian culture over here at the same time,” Patel said. “In the future we’d really like to give more and maybe even bring some of those kids over here so they can see what we’re doing for them.”

Looking to the future, Patel also hopes that next year the competition can increase publicity on campus to attract more UM students to watch the performances.

The teams, who compete regularly in the national competition circuit, put in hours of physically strenuous practice each week to perfect the routines they exhibited Saturday night. According to UM SwaggeRaas Captain Richa Panara, many competitive teams practice between 11-28 hours per week.

The routines are judged on choreography, execution and artistry. The dance style requires great precision and energy, incorporating high kicks, jumps, sharp arm movements, dandiya twirling and synchronized group formations.

Quite literally, the dazzling performances came at the cost of blood, sweat and tears. The Canes Emergency Response Team (CERT) was on duty at Mayhem, administering ice to exhausted dancers. One performer was temporarily unable to walk due to back pain. Another stepped on a stray shard of glass onstage.

Yet despite the physical strain, the performers still carried on.

“We’ve seen people dancing with fractured ankles, shin splints and broken toes over the past two competitions we’ve worked,” said junior Anthony Yao, CERT vice president of logistics.

The stakes were high for all teams at Mayhem.

“All of the strongest teams want to come here because we’re one of the last competitions before the big national competition,” Narayanan said.

Panara expressed her admiration for the quality of the performances.

“Being creative and bringing something new to the stage, either through formations, artistic elements or a theme, is really hard,” she said. “Regardless, every year, every team that comes to Mayhem does just that. Overall I think it’s just really important to bounce ideas off of other teams and keep a good morale in the competition circuit.”

At the end of the night, RU Raga took home first place and a $1,500 cash prize. UMD EntouRAAS and VCU Ricochet Raas took second and third, respectively.

“It’s been a while since we’ve won first place at any competition,” Dhruv Shah, captain of RU Raga and a senior at Rutgers, said while his team exchanged excited hugs and photos with the trophy behind him. “Last time we won was two years ago in Baltimore, so this was definitely a milestone.”

Shah cited a relaxation of previously strict team rules and the members’ love for the team’s success.

Despite the stress and hard work, the dancers are also looking forward to enjoying their visit. Tulsi Shah, a senior from VCU Ricochet Raas, called Mayhem one of the “most fun competitions of the year.” Many of the teams planned to explore Miami Beach and to enjoy the warm weather for the rest of the weekend.