Fowler High plans dance to celebrate Sikh students

The Fresno BeeApril 3, 2014 

Fowler High School students will dine on traditional Punjabi fare like potato-filled fried samosas and dance to songs from Indian artists -- but the Bollywood-themed mini prom isn't only about having a good time on a Friday night.

The teens intend to celebrate Fowler's diverse student body and raise awareness about Punjabi culture and the Sikh religion. The dance, which is themed around India's largest film industry, is being organized by the school's Punjabi Club.

"We want to break down the walls, we want to hold this event so people can come from other cultures and say, 'Hey this is cool music; hey, this food tastes really good,'" said Principal Hank Gutierrez.

The dance, which is three years in the making, comes just weeks after a national report showed 54.5% of Sikh children in Fresno have reportedly been bullied. It showed turban-wearing Sikhs, who ascribe to religious beliefs to keep their hair untrimmed, were bullied at high rates.

The report released in March by the Sikh Coalition -- which also surveyed children in Boston, Indianapolis and Seattle in 2012 and 2013 -- is based on information collected at anti-bullying forums.

The study shows Fresno had the highest rate of Sikh students -- 51% -- who said their schools didn't take any action after they reported bullying.

More than 30,000 Sikhs live in the central San Joaquin Valley. Out of the 680 teenagers who attend the largely Latino Fowler High, 51 of them are Sikh.

"Our kids don't get bullied here, but we're not naive enough to think this couldn't be happening," Gutierrez said.

Fowler senior Harcoover Singh Bhatti, 18, one of the dance's organizers, said he's never been bullied. But he said the dance is a proactive step to help his peers understand Punjabi culture and Sikh religion, which both traditionally refer to the practices of people in the Pubjab region in India.

"People can assume everything about a person's culture or background, but they don't really know it," he said. "By doing this dance, it will give a better background on the Punjabi."

The event is the last dance before Fowler's prom, and is expected to be nearly as lively: Almost 100 youngsters have already purchased tickets, a professional photographer will snap students' photos and a volunteer DJ will spin Indian music. Trained dancers will give lessons and students can sample Indian chicken, rice and naan bread.

Bhatti and the other organizers are hustling to decorate and stream brightly colored tulle -- best known for being used to make ballet tutu skirts -- from the cafeteria ceiling. They're also collecting extra Punjabi clothing for attendees who want to dress up.

"It's literally going to feel like you're in India," Gutierrez said, who will wear a Sikh groom's outfit loaned to him by one of his student's parents.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6412, hfurfaro@fresnobee.com or @hannahfurfaro on Twitter.

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