Meet Ambassador Mimi Stella, Dancing Her Way Through Life

January 29, 2018 [Mimi Stella, Masala Bhangra Ambassador]

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Masala Bhangra Ambassadors have a unique perspective on Masala Bhangra, as they are both teachers and students. We thought it’d be helpful to share American Mimi Stella’s experience with the workout and the successes and challenges she faced as a new instructor. ~ Sarina Jain

When did you discover MB and what were your first impressions?
I had a unique introduction to Masala Bhangra about 15 years ago when I started following fitness classes on a TV station called FIT TV. I stumbled on this great Indian Dance class and I would tape, yes tape, the classes and then work out at home. It’s where I first learned “basic.” Fast forward years and years later, a friend of mine was performing in the Ailey Extension Spring Show with the West African Class. My husband and I went to see the performance. About half way into the show the “Masala Bhangra” class took to the stage and I was out of my seat screaming and yelling with enthusiasm and support. It was the year Turn Down for What was on the charts and when they started dancing to the bhangra version I could not contain my enthusiasm. At the end of the performance a beautiful woman joined them onstage whom I immediately realized was the instructor…and then….I recognized her as the Masala Bhangra teacher from my FITTV tapes from all those years ago! By the way, I still have the tape! Then and there at that show I knew I wanted to take the classes. The energy of the class was palpable. The joy on the faces of the students was unmistakable and I wanted in! The music was also contagious. This was something I could do. Something new to learn. Even as a teacher I continue to be a student and this was a new cultural dance form for me that I could find joy in doing.
The next year we went again to the performance, not only for me to see my friend but excited to see Masala Bhangra again. After the show, my husband and I congratulated Sarina and I went home and signed up for the next instructor training in NY, about a month later. I had never taken a Masala Bhangra class other than following along with Sarina on TV but I HAD to be a part of teaching this program. It was contagious.

Have you always been a dancer or involved in fitness?
Yes, from about age 5 I was in dance class. I have never ever not danced. It is really who I am. I danced through school and then as a young adult did a lot of dancing and community theater work. In the early 90s, I stumbled upon a West African Dance class and I spent 20+ years learning and subsequently teaching this cultural dance form. My dance background and love of all things movement allowed me to easily transition into the fitness world when Latin dance fitness took the industry by storm. I had a solid background in teaching so was able to apply my skill set to another cultural dance form. I am not a fitness person per se though for sure I did my fair share of aerobics classes in the 80s! Dance is my fitness and I am a fitness instructor because I live now in that world. I am happy that the lines have crossed.

When did you become an Ambassador?
The summer of 2015 – I took the training in in June and also went to the New York Mela. I felt so honored to be part of the group. The training was great. Sarina was so hands on with all of us. I cannot believe it will be 3 years this June!

Why did you decide to make the leap to teaching Masala Bhangra?
I took the Ambassador Training with the intention of teaching, so for me it was more of a transition than a leap. When I saw the Masala Bhangra performance I had made the decision that this was going to be my next discipline to master. Masala Bhangra met my internal criteria in that it brought me joy to do it and now I needed to share that joy! I knew that New Jersey students would be receptive to a new class and I was excited to share this with them.

How did you grow your classes / student base?
If there is one thing I know about teaching dance/fitness for so many years it’s that you cannot take a training and then start teaching a class the next week. It is so important that you practice practice practice before getting up in front of a room of students. Even if you yourself have been a student of the discipline for some time, teaching is a whole different thing. With that in mind, I took some time to learn steps and formulate my first class. Four months to be exact! I had been a teacher at the Connection for Women in Summit and they had a program where they brought in guest teachers to teach a workshop. Masala Bhangra was new to the facility, so I was able to arrange a three-week workshop. Each week’s class was met with great enthusiasm. I wanted to build an interest. I continued to do these special one off classes – workshops at different facilities that I taught at and some at places where friends would host. From there I developed a list of interested students and after about a year, offer a regular class.

What was a challenge (or challenges) you faced as you grew MB in a new area? How did you overcome them?
It’s work putting a new class together. You have to gain an interest in the student population who might not be as eager to try something new as you are to teach it. And there’s also scheduling. Facilities have a schedule that’s usually completely filled with popular classes. Convincing them to put you in the schedule means finding a space. That’s why I find it best to try and do special one off classes. Do a few of them over the course of months. Students will begin to ask for the class on the regular schedule. If there is an interest from the membership sometimes a space can be found. Admittedly, I had a good following of students but this was new to them. So I was persistent. I popped up everywhere doing a one time class. But it took time. Months. Be persistent and enthusiastic but be patient as well. You’ll get there!

What's been surprising about being an Ambassador (good or bad)?
I have a new family! I have been able to meet and spend time with some of the other New York area Ambassadors and they are so welcoming. It’s like we are all spokes of a big wheel and by working as a unit we move forward. Masala Bhangra Ambassadors are just so genuine. We all want each other to succeed. I love the network. I watch the videos Ambassadors post and I get new ideas. The only bad thing is that I don’t have time to take all their classes!!

Do you have any advice for people considering becoming an Ambassador?
The best advice I got from Sarina was to keep my initial classes simple. I tend to want to do a lot of steps and some of the more challenging ones. But in the end, if people cannot do the class because it’s too hard they won’t come back. I learned this in my first few classes. I had a lot of steps set to teach and tried to cram them all into the hour, or they were difficult steps for beginners. I was able to recognize this and remembered what Sarina said. I had a lot to learn even being a teacher myself for a very long time. Take a step back and think about your student. Read the room. Are they struggling or having fun? Are only 2 people out of 20 getting the step? Don’t be afraid to simplify or cut back. Take the journey with your students and I promise the class will be awesome.
I do have a bit of advice as well to give Ambassadors which is to always continue to be a student. You are never that good that you cannot continue to learn. I go to class as a student every week (whether it is a Masala Bhangra class or another dance class). Being a student will make you a better teacher. Professional dancers still take class almost every day. The more you can learn, the better you can teach or perform. Continue to build your dance vocabulary.

What's your favorite dance step/move?
Without question Hot Tamale! Because in the beginning I could not get it! I struggled for months! It makes me a better teacher when I can struggle because then I am the student for that move! I watched Sarina on video and I practiced. I broke it down and then one day I got it. Lightbulb moment! It’s now my favorite step to teach. I always tell my students that I continue to be a student as well. That when I go to class I don't get every step, but with practice and repetition it will come to them. And then they will forever know how to do it.

What's your favorite song?
I have two. For sure the Bhangra remix of Usher's Yeah. It plays to the funk side of me which is at my core and then mixing in Bhangra – it's over the top! Second is I Came To Party. It's just such a Mimi song!

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This is a wonderful in-depth interview with a very thoughtful and intelligent person who is most likely a terrific teacher.

This bright, charming, talented. beautiful woman is my daughter! Need I say more? I am proud beyond belief!

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