It’s 10 p.m. on a Thursday, and the energy level could not be higher than it is at the very top of parking garage H on UCF’s campus. Feet stomp on the concrete. Wooden sticks (called dandiya) clack together. Two dozen students hop, bob and raise their hands to the constellations in synch to a fast-paced musical number. If you pay close enough attention you might notice they’re telling a story with their moves.
A few surprised officers from the UCF Police Department have come to see what’s going on and, when the music stops, offer applause and a compliment. “You’re incredible.”
Apart from competition and special festivals, the rooftop is the best place to see this kind of choreography. It’s called Garba-Raas, or just Raas, and keeps South Asian culture very much alive wherever it’s performed — in college auditoriums around the country or in a wide-open parking lot at UCF.
“We go to the top of the garage because we can have it all to ourselves late at night,” says civil engineering student and KnightRaas team captain Rushil Patel. “The air is fresher, too.”
UCF’s KnightRaas team is one of 60 collegiate squads that compete nationwide in a circuit called Raas All-Stars. Among them are the University of Virginia HooRaas, University of Miami SwaggeRaas, and the Georgia Tech Ramblin’ Raas. The Raas All-Stars were founded in 2009 as a way for college students to preserve an important South Asian tradition, which for most of the dancers is embedded in their ancestry.
“Being on this team means a lot to my family,” says Esan Patel (no relation to Rushil). His mother immigrated to the U.S. from India when she was 16, and father did the same at age 20. After marrying and having Esan, they’d take him to Diwali and Navratri festivals in Jacksonville so he could understand the importance of the family’s background. As a UCF freshman, Esan saw some videos of KnightRaas, which brought back those childhood memories.
“I learned about Raas at the festivals,” Esan says. “But as a teenager I became interested in other things and lost touch with the culture, including the dance. When I found out UCF had a Raas team, I saw it as an opportunity to reconnect with my heritage.”
The athleticism adds another layer of appeal. Esan says he had trouble learning the speed and complexities of the competitive dances at first, but he made the team because of his rekindled passion for Raas.
“We practice about 10 hours a week,” Rushil says, “so we look for people who are willing to push themselves and put in the work.”
Rushil was born in Mumbai, India, and moved with his family to the U.S. before his first birthday. He played soccer and basketball, but his parents regularly took Rushil and his older brother to the Indian Association near their home in Palm Beach County (there are more than 40 Indian Associations throughout Florida), where a family friend taught them the traditional Raas dance. Rushil’s troupe would perform at annual festivals, but he didn’t become hooked until his brother started competing at the University of Florida.
“The steps he taught me were quicker and more powerful than what we learned growing up,” Rushil says. “That’s when I decided to focus my athletic attention on Raas. I thought one day I’ll captain my college team to the national championship.”
He’s been the captain of KnightRaas since 2019, one year before the team began competing in the All-Stars circuit. During the 2022 season that ended in April, they told the story of a treasure hunt through their six-minute routine, traveling to venues in Atlanta, Austin, Texas, and Champaign, Illinois. For the season they finished 11th in the country — just outside the top-8 that qualify for the national championships.
“We’re still relatively new to competition,” Rushil says, “but this group is fired up about the possibility of making it to nationals next season.”
Virtually nothing is handed to the KnightRaas dancers. They practice on parking garages. They raise money so they can afford to sleep five to six people to a room when they travel. Earlier this year they collected a few hundred dollars on a series of dares recorded for Instagram: drink a shot of hot sauce, do the ice-bucket challenge and then break into a Raas routine in front of the Reflecting Pond on campus.
“The dares bring awareness to the fact UCF has a team and to an important part of our South Asian culture,” Esan says. “A side benefit is that every time we dance, it brings us closer, more as a family than a team.”
The entire experience exemplifies what Professor of History Rochisha Narayan says about “investments in cultural practices that spark curiosity and lead to reflections on what is understood as one’s heritage.”
When the members of KnightRaas aren’t bonding in the clean air on garage H, they’re sometimes connecting in the aroma of a potluck dinner. Each team member brings a dish to represent the region in India where their family is from, with the potpourri of spicey scents filling someone’s apartment.
“I’d love to pass these traditions down to future generations, just as they’ve been passed down to us,” Rushil says. “But first, I really want to win a national championship.”