With his high–stepping feet, sweeping arm movements and infectious exuberance, Gurdeep Pandher is deploying an energetic Punjabi folk dance to fend off pandemic blues while simultaneously promoting cultural diversity and inclusion. In 2006, the poet, author, artist and, more recently, Twitter–famous bhangra dancer moved to Canada and travelled across the country before finally settling in the Yukon. When Covid–19 hit, he took his popular dance classes online to raise both spirits and money for hospitals and food banks. His Twitter posts (including one of a dance session with the Canadian Armed Forces retweeted by Prime Minister Trudeau) tend to go viral – it’s hard to watch Pandher biking along a dirt road and stopping suddenly to dance bhangra in a field of wildflowers without feeling just a little bit better about the world. We reached Pandher in his cabin in the wilderness outside Whitehorse to chat about the beauty of travel in Canada, getting stuck in the snow and the responsibility that comes with social media stardom.
enRoute You grew up in the remote village of Siahar in India’s Punjab state before leaving to attend college in Ludhiana, Punjab. What is your favourite memory from your childhood in Siahar?
Gurdeep Pandher I grew up without technology – it was very much a traditional farming lifestyle. We didn’t even have a clock! We woke up with the sunrise and ate food from the land, irrigated with water from the Himalayas. I remember running through the village with the other children with no worries about anything – it is a beautiful memory.
ER In 2006, you came to Canada and travelled widely across the country before becoming a citizen in 2011. What do you love most about travelling in Canada?
GP There are two things – one is our country’s incredible landscape and natural elegance. When you are on a flight anywhere in Canada and look out your window, you can’t help thinking, “Oh my! So beautiful!” The other thing I love is that we have so many cultures, subcultures and microcultures in Canada, and every single one has its own unique beauty.
ER You’ve said that smaller communities are your favourite places to visit – why is that?
GP When I became a Canadian citizen, I felt even more passionate about learning about this country. To me, becoming a citizen does not mean that you get some papers from the government and that’s it – it means that you explore and learn about the people and their culture and the way they live. Local cultures, arts and people attract me. I like to take road trips to see smaller communities that you’d miss otherwise – it’s in these communities that people have more care and compassion for each other.
ER You made your home in the Yukon eight years ago and now, when asked what your favourite season is, the answer is unequivocally “winter.” How did you come to love Canadian winters?
GP I had no experience with the snow and was driving from Vancouver to Squamish, where I was living at the time. It started snowing. The road was very hilly and twisty, like a snake, and the car was sliding around. I was completely overwhelmed. I thought, “No, I can’t drive anymore.” I stopped the car in the middle of the road, at the top of a huge hill. There was a long, long line of cars behind me, but luckily people didn’t get mad. The RCMP came and said, “We will help you,” and they put their cars in front of me to help me get down the hill. The best thing was that everybody was very understanding. Now, I love the snow. I learned how to ski and it’s my favourite winter activity – I am grateful to the people who helped me learn the skill because it has brought me a lot of joy and love for the winter.
ER What’s a must–see for visitors to the Yukon?
GP My favourite destination is Tombstone Territorial Park. The Tombstone Mountain Range – and the entire Dempster Highway, which is unpaved and the only way into the park – has an unbelievable beauty and energy.
ER Earlier this year you began posting yourself dancing in the wilderness to lift people’s spirits – how did you feel when your posts started going viral?
GP I started making the videos to share positivity and cheerfulness, and when they began reaching such a vast number of people across Canada and beyond, I felt touched to my core. I sometimes have millions of views in a month. Bhangra is the dance of happiness, so it’s a form of dancing that can help many people. It doesn’t matter what kind of mood I’m in, I feel like my body is generating the happiest energy as soon as I tap my feet on the ground.
ER How does bhangra help break down barriers?
GP Dance and music are universal. They can open minds and connect people from different cultures. Dance has the power to convey a message of unity and togetherness. The best part is that people with all types of beliefs have appreciated my work – I feel like I’m spreading “unity in diversity” with positive cross–cultural relations and a new understanding to embrace cultures. I think my work shows the beautiful side of Canadian multiculturalism.
ER You’ve faced racial discrimination yourself in the past, is that why promoting inclusivity is so important to you?
GP Yes, even though I have faced discrimination, it is the goodness in most people that keeps me going. There are more good people in every community, people who object to messages of hate. Unfortunately, racism exists and it’s what happens when there’s a lack of education and we’re not aware, in a good way, of other cultures. We all have a responsibility to conquer it.
ER What’s next on your Canadian travel bucket list?
GP I met a friend in the Yukon who was like a brother and he was originally from Nova Scotia. He inspired me to want to visit and meet the people there, so that’s where I plan to go next year.
ER What is your biggest travel tip for fellow Canadians when it comes to exploring closer to home?
GP Visit the lakes and mountains, yes, but meet the local people, too. Meeting them and learning about them will help you create a broader understanding and bring you closer to the people in your country.