Salt Spring Island played host to a social media sensation earlier this month when the Yukon’s Gurdeep Pandher visited the island while vacationing in British Columbia.
Pandher has brightened days for countless people throughout the COVID pandemic. His viral videos posted to Twitter, Instagram and other platforms contrast the colourful sights and sounds of traditional bhangra dance with stunning natural backdrops. Scenes of dance outside his lakeside cabin near Whitehorse have recently been supplemented with the sweeping sands of Long Beach, Tofino, the small historic Sikh community of Paldi near Duncan, and Salt Spring’s Ganges Harbour.
“It was just beautiful over there,” Pandher told the Driftwood after returning home to the Yukon. “[The trip] was one of the highlights of my lifetime, I will say that.”
Pandher said he was not intending to do a performance tour during his vacation on and around Vancouver Island, but that’s what he essentially wound up doing as local government officials, the media and other groups caught wind that he was in the area. He was invited to dance at the B.C. Legislature and got many of the MLAs involved, along with Premier John Horgan. In other stops he danced with RCMP officers and healthcare workers.
Salt Spring’s spot on the Vancouver Island tour came about through a connection Pandher had with Jean Wilkinson. Although a few islanders have also enrolled in his online lessons, he didn’t meet anyone besides Wilkinson during his visit out of respect for the community and pandemic times. He was surprised to find the island was much bigger and much more populated than he’d been expecting, and was pleased to discover Salt Spring’s vibrant arts community.
“Even when I was dancing on the shore it was great. There were some folks there and and they really enjoyed watching and it was awesome,” Pandher said. “Those mini interactions were great, and I really liked the vibe and the size of the island.”
As Pandher explains on his website, bhangra was originally the dance of Punjabi farmers. The men danced to celebrate their wheat harvest and on festival days but also after accomplishing more regular farming chores. Recently bhangra has expanded its reach with women also participating. The dance form is common at all sorts of events and settings, from weddings to Bollywood movies to exercise classes.
“Despite its evolution, bhangra has succeeded in maintaining its core elements. It remains the dance of joy, the dance of happiness, the dance of good health, and the dance of productivity,” Pandher’s web article states.
Pandher learned bhangra in childhood in the Punjab and followed up with additional lessons as a youth. A Canadian resident since 2006 and a citizen since 2011, he is now focused on teaching the dance format and performing, all the while spreading a message of inclusion, multiculturalism and love.
As his website states, he stands with those who experience marginalization, repression and violence because of the colour of their skin and feels there is urgency to build cross-cultural bridges and understanding.
This message has become especially meaningful over the past year, when people have needed every source of positivity they can find.
“After the pandemic that has been actually a very important part of what I’m doing,” Pandher said.
He explained the viral response started organically, when he started posting videos from the Yukon. Many viewers commented to thank him for creating a few moments of joy or giving them a mental break.
“People were sending such wonderful positive feedback about my work and that really inspired me to do more,” Pandher said “Whatever I’m doing is helping people and spreading positivity, because we are in stressful times.”
He is especially happy to have received messages from healthcare workers and people working in other critical areas who have felt relief from their days after watching his videos.
“That felt good and reminded me of the importance of what I’m doing, even though I didn’t plan to go that way. I’ve heard from people all over the country and it’s motivated me a lot,” Pandher said.
It’s difficult to say what might take place in the world in the next year, but Pandher said his B.C. experience has opened his eyes to the possibility for future tours to spread happiness throughout the province and across Canada.
“It was not a planned tour but it inspired me a lot to do more of what I’ve been doing,” he said. “I couldn’t visit so many places — if I went everywhere I was invited I would have to spend a month, or more than that.”