Before they took the internet by storm, twin choreographers and dancers Poonam and Priyanka Shah spent hours practicing dance routines in the comfort of their home, creating what they call “Bfusion,” a combination of Bharatnatyam classical Indian dance, Bollywood choreography, and elements of hip-hop.
One of the first viral videos they posted on their YouTube channel included their choreographed rendition of “Ramta Jogi,” a song from the 1999 Bollywood film, “Taal.” Soon after, it was through one of their Bfusion and hip-hop exercise videos shot in their kitchen that led to fame, reaching more than 2.2 million views.
When it comes to creating content that goes viral, the twins told NBC News, success through that medium is unpredictable.
“Our main purpose is to inspire people to come up with something creative and to really express themselves in a unique way,” Priyanka Shah said.
The twins said they initially set out to create content and enhance South Asian visibility while putting a new spin on their original dance choreography. They didn’t think much would come of their dance videos until they realized that singer Chris Brown shared one of their videos on his official Facebook page.
During recent months, the twins have landed on a billboard ad, starred in a coffee TV commercial in India, and received a ton of fan mail from across the globe.
“We put [up] videos because it was a great way to express our Indian and American identity…we put up videos because we wanted to be another voice for Bollywood and another voice for Indian representation in the U.S.,” said Poonam Shah.
Most recently, the twins received an opportunity to perform on Season 9 of India’s “Jhalak Dikhhla Jaa,” which they refer to as “India’s version of ‘Dancing with the Stars.’”
For the sisters, being on stage under bright lights, in front of their favorite childhood Bollywood heroes, was a surreal moment that swept them off their feet.
“Calming the nerves was a big thing, we were just freaking out because we’re not used to such a big stage,” said Priyanka Shah.
'It's Easier For Us to Be In Sync'
It can be difficult to tell Poonam and Priyanka Shah apart as they take the stage and mirror each other’s movements, fusing popping exercises with Bharatnatyam, classical Indian dance.
Even their relatives have a tough time telling them apart if it weren’t for the twins’ distinct fashion choices: Priyanka Shah is outspoken, wears bright scarves, a black jacket from Express paired with black combat boots and pin straight, edgy hair. Poonam Shah, on the other hand, will almost always wear high heel wedge boots and a trench coat, and she’ll never leave the house without curling the ends of her hair.
The twins — who both grew up in St. Joseph, Michigan — have never spent a long period of time away from each other, and can’t remember a time when they weren’t dancing together. They’d rather not think about dancing solo.
“We try to use the fact that we are twins to be in sync. It’s easier for us to be in sync,” said Priyanka Shah. “The fact is, we have learned from the same teachers and learned hip-hop from the same teachers, so it’s like we are similar in that we are similar in our dancing styles,” she added.
The twins have been classically trained in Bharatnatyam for eight years and spent much of their time learning choreography at their instructor’s home on the weekends. The training put the sisters in touch with their South Asian heritage, they said.
“If it weren’t for dance, I don’t think we would have been as connected to being Indian. We spent so much time at our dance teacher’s home and over the years it became a great way to stay connected to our Indian culture,” said Poonam Shah.
While they were reluctant to learn the dance at first, it wasn’t long until they began receiving positive feedback from the community after performing at numerous Diwali festivals, recitals, family events, and wedding receptions.
After the girls moved to Chicago in high school, they earned a deeper appreciation for Bharatnatyam and were eager to retain elements of the classical dance form, but also sought to experiment with other dance styles while making sure to preserve what makes each dance form beautiful.
The twins said their mother has been a huge source of inspiration as they continue to incorporate Bharatnatyam into their choreography. Their mother dreamed of being classically trained in Bharatnatyam, but was unable to complete her training after she immigrated to the U.S. and focused her attention on accounting and business, and raising a family, Priyanka Shah said.
“It was a way of our mother being able for her to keep us connected to Indian culture in America,” said Priyanka Shah. “She always wanted to learn to dance.”
A Connection to Identity
Dance has also given the twins a chance to express themselves during times when they felt they had lost their identity.
“Growing up Indian in America as first generation is really confusing. On the one hand you feel alienated,” said Poonam Shah. “It was a way to express both parts of those identities, being Indian and American and fusing them, and a way to say who we are and express our identity.”
The Shah sisters say they are glad to see South Asian social media influencers rise and create new content, naming creator Lilly Singh, as one of their idols.
“Seeing her doing something so big and grandiose, [we] think that’s cool. It makes [us] feel like my own people made it so far. I think I’d be a great thing for other Indian Americans if we are able to create this brand and do something with it...It would inspire them because they can relate to us and see so much of their heritage in us,” said Priyanka Shah.
The twins both attended University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where Poonam majored in finance and Priyanka studied accounting and management. They were also active on their Bollywood-fusion dance circuit team for three years. In college, the twins competed at regional competitions before experimenting with their own choreography and regularly posting their routines on YouTube.
“We really wanted to make it cool...we wanted to bring back the artistry in Bollywood and put our own twist in it,” said Poonam Shah.
During their final year in college, the twins were no longer part of the fusion dance team on campus and decided to branch out and create their own YouTube channel.
“We weren’t dancing every day and life was kind of like not as much fun without that form of self-expression,” said Priyanka Shah.
They weren’t as serious about their YouTube channel until after they graduated from college.
“I think we just knew we don’t see ourselves dropping dance and living in the real world,” Shah said. “We always wanted to create and do something to improve our dance, and our parents were pretty cool with it.”
While their parents are supportive of their decision to take up dance full-time, the twins say there have been plenty of times when their parents were at a little hesitant.
“Even to this day, my mom was kind of just like, ‘guys, shouldn’t you be taking the GMAT [the Graduate Management Admissions Test]? She’s still on the fence, but they’re supportive,” Shah said.
Dance is a constant reminder of all of the sacrifices their parents made since immigrating to the U.S., working in the hotel business, and raising the twins as well as two sons.
“When they came here, they had responsibilities and so many things on their shoulders. My parents are living out their dreams through us,” said Poonam Shah.
A Future as Influencers
Next on the sisters’ radar is focusing their efforts on getting professionally trained in hip-hop dance. Last year, they spent six months in L.A. learning hip-hop choreography from different dance studios.
The twins hope to incorporate elements of hip-hop into their “Bfusion” choreography. In particular, they’ve focused their choreography on “animation popping” and transitioning into Bharatnatyam, as seen in their video, “Ghungroos and Sneakers,” which was shot at Mary Bartelme Park in Chicago just before they flew out for their first reality dance television show performance in India.
“We try our best to fuse the styles of hip-hop,” said Priyanka Shah. “The ones we do is popping animation and what’s inspired by and a lot is inspired by classic Bollywood and classical Indian [dance] movements.”
The twins are currently working on becoming social media influencers and hope to use their “twinness” to launch and hone in on their own unique brand, Poonam & Priyanka.
“We want to have a brand, kind of like Mary-Kate and Ashley. We’re trying to post more on social media and our YouTube channel, and we’re trying to inspire and make a lot more content,” Priyanka Shah said.
Though their videos have reached millions of views, the twins say they don’t want to be dance instructors or launch their own dance studio. They’d rather keep creating content and do it because they love it.
“If you make it a job, you might lose the fuel,” Priyanka Shah said. “We want to keep it as something that makes us happy. We are trying to be social media influencers.”