Choreographer Nakul Dev Mahajan is best known for choreographing several memorable routines on Fox’s hit reality dance show So You Think You Can Dance. In fact, it was his work on SYTYD, says Mahajan, that led the Miss America pageant winner Nina Davuluri to reach out to him in June to discuss collaborating on a Bollywood routine for the talent portion of the program. I reached out to Mahajan to ask him about working with the former Miss New York and his thoughts on her performance.
Excerpts from our conversation are below.
Congrats on everything! How did you feel when you saw Nina being crowned Miss America?
Well, it was my birthday that day — September 15 — and then I was getting text messages and voicemails. We hadn’t seen it live [on the West Coast]. I was in shock when I heard, it was such a monumental moment.
You were pretty prominently credited during the show as the choreographer.
I was overwhelmed with appreciation for Nina and the Miss America organization to credit me like that. After I heard she won, I went on to social media to see if I could find video of her performance. And there was this horrible, poor resolution video — it looked like someone taped it with their cell phone — and I saw that they were putting these pop-ups on during her performance. The first one said that her her favorite place to travel to was Egypt and there was another one and I was like “is that my name?” and I saw it said Nakul Dev Mahajan.
What was working with Nina like? How long did it take to put together the routine?
She messaged me a day later to say thank you. [She said], “I had tears of joy during my performance.” I told her it that it just looked like you were so into the performance. There’s not much more a choreographer wants.
How it came about was that Nina flew down to California. She was a fan of So You Think You Can Dance, that’s how she found me. It was two days — first day was learning the choreography and the second day was cleaning it up. I like to know the personality of the person I’m working with… I’ve always tried to care about the journey. Her personality is exactly what you saw in the performance. Utter grace and professionalism.
I read somewhere that some people on Nina’s team advised her against doing Bollywood because it was too quote unquote foreign. Did you have any concerns about that? Performing a song without any English words is risky.
I didn’t. To me I think America has really embraced Bollywood. When the announcer [ABC’s Lara Spencer] introduced the dance it was so fluid, it didn’t require any explanation. Unless you are living under a rock, Americans know what Bollywood is. If anything, it goes with what her platform is — cultural competency and celebrating diversity.
So no concerns about the audience?
I breathe, eat and sleep Bollywood. So I’m never going to say “Are you sure you want to do this?” [laughs] I always embrace people who come to me who want to learn.
I also read that you almost didn’t take Nina on because you had some health concerns.
I’m currently recovering from cancer — I was diagnosed with testicular cancer last September — and I have been cancer-free since February. Nina called me in June and I was a little reluctant about whether I could do it. I have always been a big advocate for South Asians and I always felt like it was important to work with the community. I was very open with her and explained the situation and I said that I can totally do it, but the one thing I probably can’t do is dance side-by-side with you. She totally understood.
Five years ago when you choreographed Katee and Joshua’s dance on SYTYCD, I wrote that it was many people’s first introduction to Bollywood. With Nina’s performance, you’ve introduced the genre to even more people. How does that make you feel?
That’s very nice of you to say. I try not to think about that too much, I want to stay grounded. I never think that way, and I really live in a bubble in SoCal. I opened up my dance school before Bollywood was even credited as a form. I still have my old business cards that say “Nakul Dev Mahajan: Hindi Film Dance Lessons.”
Interview has been slightly edited and condensed for clarity.