Sarina Jain does not mind people calling her the Indian Jane Fonda like A Magazine did several years ago. But she quickly adds that her Masala Bhangra Workout classes that mix aerobic principles with bhangra dance steps are a big hit with non-desis. In fact, her three workout videos and her classes at some of New York's top gyms such as Crunch, Equinox and New York Sports Club attract mostly non-desis. That worries Sarina who describes herself a 'fitness addict.'
She spoke to Senior Editor Arthur J Pais in New York on why she is worried about the lack of fitness urgency among desis.
Sarina, who founded Masala Dance and Fitness, Inc about five years ago, will soon bring out her video's fifth volume. She and her workout have drawn the attention of publications like Cosmopolitan, Fitness and Self.
She is also the hostess of V Desi, a popular Saturday television show that invites viewers on camera to discuss their favourite songs and request a number for someone special.
On the show, Sarina begins the interviews by asking her guests their name and a few personal questions. We asked her similar questions.
What does your name mean?
I remember my father telling me it had either Persian or Arabic origin. He thought it meant a princess or a queen.
Where are you from?
I was born and raised in Los Angeles. Many people think I am a Jain from Punjab because of Masala Bhangra Workout. But I am a Jain from Rajasthan. Some people cannot understand how a Marwari can be in love with bhangra. I attribute my love for bhangra to my upbringing. My parents encouraged my sister Sheela and me to enjoy and respect everything good in Indian culture. There is not a single year I remember not visiting India and soaking myself in the culture.
What did you study in Los Angeles?
Communications and public relations.
How did fitness enter your life?
I have been involved in the fitness business for over a decade, since I was 15. I always felt the need to do something even after running the track in high school. I was so restless that I went to a recreation centre close to my home many times in a week. One day the instructor told me she was leaving town and asked me if I wanted to take over.
What was your immediate reaction?
For a moment I thought I wasn't prepared. I thought I was too young. But I always loved taking up a challenge or two. I could not have known then that in less than a decade I would teach, apart from the Masala Bhangra workout, cardio-salsa and, hip-hop at top-notch gyms.
Was there a personal reason?
My father died of a massive cardiac arrest at the age of 47. His death made me think, more than ever, of the urgent need to keep fit. Even then it is only in recent years that I have been thinking more about why many people in our community lead a sedentary life. At my fitness classes, I see a few Indians. If I depended on the Indian community for business, I would be dead by now. I hope things change.
What makes you think so?
In big cities every one of 10 doctors is a desi. If doctors appreciated the need for regular fitness regimes, and emphasized that to patients, friends and relatives, we could see a dramatic improvement in health.
Who are your clients?
When I started the classes, it was all non-Indians. If I saw an Indian in the gym it was like 'Omigod, there's a desi.' I would wonder why s/he was standing at the back of the class. Now there are 20 percent desis in a class of 40. That is a big improvement.
How did bhangra enter your life?
A girl, who saw me doing hip-hop at a party where my sister and I were smoking out the boys, asked me if I knew bhangra. I said 'no.' She said she would like to teach me. She had heard a bit about my background. My sister and I danced together for several years and we were known as the Dancing Jain Sisters.
I also trained many desi kids for pageants. Their moms used to call me up and ask me to train the sons. Along with the girl who taught me bhangra, there was another girl. We four (including my sister) formed the dance group Dhamaka. Our bhangra team won every competition we entered. It was the first time girls had won bhangra competitions. Soon I was teaching kids bhangra. I became serious about starting a business. I was working for a public relations firm in Los Angeles after college for several months, starting late 1998. I thought if I could sell other people's products, why not my own? I got a lot of help from colleagues at the firm.
A local mainstream television station gave the Masala Bhangra Workout video that I choreographed, directed and produced, a lot of exposure.
Why did you move to New York?
I thought I would have far more opportunities here than in Los Angeles or in San Francisco. I had made a video showing bhangra movements and that had caught on LA, but I thought I would go higher in New York. Apart from video, I was also teaching dancing and physical fitness at top schools in LA. I wanted to do it on a bigger scale in New York. I have been able to do everything I wanted, and much more.
Did you have detractors?
When I began, some Punjabi acquaintances and neighbors wondered why this Marwari kudi was dabbling in bhangra. Once I got noticed, they began to congratulate me. Their reservations were not going to deter me. I am a professional. I was not doing anything to get attention.
Are you surprised many people have tried to imitate you?
I am not surprised as I expected it. I am not teaching any bhangra workout. I am teaching the masala bhangra workout which took me quite a long time to devise. More importantly, I try to do everything scientifically. At my class you don't feel like you are working out. You feel like you are dancing at a wedding or a social function. I have placed it in a gym setting. I have brought years of experience as a physical fitness expert to the video -- and to my workout.
How did the television offer come to you?
A friend in New York told me a desi television show was looking for a hostess. I told him immediately I was not interested. I had a bad experience with a desi show in LA but the friend insisted I keep an open mind and go for the interview.
I did and I am one lucky person as I enjoy the show a lot.
Why would that be?
I am able to interview people from all walks of life. Many non-desis appreciate desi music through friends, girlfriends or boyfriends. We play requests going out to parents, siblings, friends or sweethearts.
Forget for a moment you are a hostess. Imagine you are being interviewed for V Desi. What is your song request?
I am a great fan of Amitabh Bachchan and Hema Malini. I would request the title song of the movie Naseeb (Mere Naseeb Mein).
And this goes to?
To all well-wishers and supporters. They know who they are.
How about the special man in your life?
I am waiting for a raja from Rajasthan.
Do you believe in marriage?
I do, though I do not see it happening in a year or two. I want to marry and bring up kids in New York. Never mind what some people would say, this is a great city for children. There are many wonderful opportunities here to learn and grow, and become successful.
There is plenty of music in the city, isn't it?
Yes, yes. I cannot do without music and dance. I will sing and dance bhangra even when pregnant (laughs).
Seriously, I would love my baby to listen to bhangra, salsa and all kinds of music even before the baby is born (laughs more).
Deepak Chopra and Pandit Ravi Shankar were planning to create special music for pregnant women. But that would be soothing music, Chopra had said.
Sure, I would use soothing music too, when for instance I am putting the baby to sleep. But vibrant music should also have a place in a child's life.
Image: Dominic Xavier