I officially joined the Harry Potter fandom in 2004, around the theatrical release of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban , when an obsessive desire to talk about the books and movies turned into hours of perusing MuggleNet and eventually reading and writing my first fanfiction. I had unknowingly fallen into the rabbit hole with no desire of ever climbing out.
Being not only a fan but a member of the *fandom* opened up a whole new universe to me. For the first time in my life I interacted with Harry Potter fans who were—at the risk of sounding like even more of a snob than a nerd— on my level . We could pick apart details that none of my other friends had even noticed , debunk preposterous theories, and create our own stories that Jo (for she was Jo to us, J.K. to the outside world) hadn’t even imagined.
Being part of the fandom meant going to conventions and wizard rock concerts and book releases and movie premieres, and taking pride in being at the front of the line or recognized by veteran entertainers and organizers. But the best part is how comfortable I felt to be uninhibited in my enthusiasm for this thing I loved, because everyone around me shared that feeling. That is a rare thing to experience even once in a lifetime.
So you can imagine my shock when I experienced it twice .
I grew up watching Bollywood movies and dancing to their music, but I never had a group of friends who wanted to do the same. To that end, college was a dream come true and enhanced to phantasmagoric levels (see also: rabbit hole). I went to a big public university with hundreds of Indian American undergrads. Dancing in the annual culture show—which boasts over 3,500 audience members and a venue that has hosted everyone from Martin Luther King Jr. to Robin Williams—was an essential part of everyone’s fall semester, a talisman of excitement that we carried around campus and classes and through other mundane, menial activities. The show made us special. We were proud, superior even, to be different and to share in this bizarre yearly ritual.
The show and the growing roster of competitive Indian dance teams on campus placed an unprecedented premium on dance as a way of meeting people and expressing ourselves. Every rehearsal was full of shouts from showrunners of “Smile!” “Sing!” “Look up!” and “ENERGY!” Apathy, the prime currency of the “cool” teenagers we once wanted to be, was no longer en vogue; the star of the show was the kid with the biggest, cheesiest smile, sweating from head to toe in traditional Indian clothing under scorching stage lights.
The same was true and even more rigorous when I joined Manzil, our competitive Bollywood dance team. I knew that I belonged in that competitive Bollywood circuit, and that I would be in my element.
Predictably, Manzil was everything I’d ever dreamed of and more. It was the cultural show on crack; instead of hundreds of participants divided into dance by lottery, team members have rounds of auditions and callbacks before being initiated. They come up with creative ways to get out of class and drive to competitions in other states. Choreography and production preparation go on for months behind the scenes, and daily rehearsals in empty classrooms and racquetball courts run anywhere from three hours to however long it takes to be the best .
My first Manzil competition was a shock. We drove hundreds of miles to Northwestern University, where half a dozen other teams from across the company had gathered to compete. It hit me when I was standing in the hotel lobby, watching people hug friends from other schools and teams who they hadn’t seen in months.
“Oh my god,” I said slowly. “This is a Harry Potter convention.”
I suppose I had suspected it, as my pre-competition excitement mirrored annual pre-con jitters. Dance competitions are like fan conventions; instead of Harry Potter, everyone was into Bollywood dance, and instead of the Internet, we lived on the stage. Where Potter Cons used to be named for spells and terms from the books, my dance competitions were named for powerful Hindi words like Tufaan (storm) and Dhamaka (explosion). On the first night of a dance competition, there’s a mixer, an opportunity to meet and bond with other dancers with a shared love of Bollywood movies and their intricate choreography. Then there’s the competition (big show/main event) and an after-party (ball) on the night before everyone leaves. And across the board everyone is running on very little food and sleep and a lot of adrenaline. Sound familiar?
In between comps (cons), you miss the long-distance friends you made, who you don’t see otherwise because they live across the country. You hug in hotel lobbies and gossip over cold pizza. Maybe the after-party involved vomit and tears (yours, or someone else’s). Maybe you met a cute stranger and dread/look forward to seeing them at every future event with this crowd. You leave more physically and emotionally exhausted than you’ve ever felt – but you can’t wait to go back.
The difference, though, the part that really staggered me when I realized how lucky I was, is that after a dance competition, I got to leave with my core group of friends. I had a de facto group to text and geek out with over new songs, dance moves, and Bollywood movies. I got to take the filmi-fusion fandom home with me and be part of it every single day with practices, bondings, and spending way more time than necessary with my teammates because they just meant that much to me.
But unlike cons, the college dance circuit is a ticking clock. You’re forced to leave when you graduate. It’s like you can attend the con, but not with a badge. You grow older and have to come up with new ways to justify cross-country travel, new ways to be involved with the community that once comprised almost your entire world. Maybe you adjust your career goals to make room for this “hobby” which has become so much more. Maybe you try to go pro, to plan and participate in events similar to the ones you loved attending. But you figure it out, because you will always be part of this, and you will never stop caring about the thing that brought all these people together for a purpose that feels bigger than all of us.
Being a Harry Potter nerd taught me that amazing things can happen when you aren’t afraid to show how much you love something. The Hindi film dance circuit let me enact and embrace the passion of a fan community as part of my daily life. In both of these worlds, I made lifelong friends who are like another family to me, and memories I’m so fond of that I can’t help going back to make more. As I’ve always told my fellow nerds, we are lucky to have this fandom – and to my fellow dancers, I say the same.