When Usha Sadhwani hears music, she has to dance — even if the music is just a catchy jingle from a TV commercial. The bubbly native New Orleanian has always been that way.
She was shy growing up but always loved to dance.
“People would invite me to their weddings just to perform,” Sadhwani said. “It's exhilarating to be someone else for a few minutes.”
Sadhwani’s life changed drastically in 2002, when an accident left her reliant on a wheelchair. But dancing still called to her, and she answered -- with help from a group called the Disco Amigos.
Sadhwani will lead the Disco Amigos by carrying the banner in five parades this Carnival season — Olympia, Carrolton, Nyx, Tucks and Napoleon.
The dancers are hard to miss. They wear shimmery silver uniforms, bedazzled shoes, funky wigs and handmade headbands, while boogying down the street to that disco beat. A second-line and a 1970s-style van topped with a disco ball follow closely behind.
This will be Sadhwani’s third year parading with the Disco Amigos as discotista, who provides “support.” The group offered Sadhwani an official spot, but the curly-haired dancing queen prefers to cheer her friends and “get the crowd into it.”
Besides, parading with the group in any capacity is more than she could have ever hoped for.
“I never thought it was possible,” Sadhwani said. “But they were so welcoming.”
Man with a plan
In 2012, Francois Camenzuli established the Disco Amigos, open to men and women of all ages.
“We wanted to create something that was universal — something that everybody could be part of,” he said. “And everybody can move to disco music.”
The group doesn’t hold tryouts; instead, he explained, prospective members try out the group to see if it’s a good fit for them. And, like many other dance teams, the Disco Amigos perform at charity events and private parties throughout the year.
“It's a fun way to give back to the community,” Camenzuli said.
Although running the Disco Amigos in New Orleans keeps Camenzuli busy, he said, he would like to launch Amigos chapters in other cities throughout the region, and also “hold the world's largest disco,” where he can showcase different elements of the genre. The Mercedes-Benz Superdome and the New Orleans Morial Convention Center are the top contenders for a venue.
“Right now there's a record in Buffalo, New York. It's like 12,000 people,” he said. “We can crush that.”
Ready to roll
During Carnival season, the Disco Amigos meet near the Rendon Inn in New Orleans for dress rehearsals. At a recent gathering, men and women in full costume sipped drinks and chatted before strolling and jiving around a neutral ground to the sound of ’70s music.
“We have what are called rolling practices,” said Helen Woo, the event chairwoman. “We're rehearsing the dances, getting all the kinks out and tightening it up, but we're also learning how to parade … keeping a straight line, learning how to turn a corner — things like that.”
When the song “Stomp!” by The Brothers Johnson boomed from the speakers of the disco van, the enthusiastic group performed a series of choreographed dance steps — moves inspired by "Thriller," side steps, high kicks and imaginary lasso whirling.
“It's one thing to learn the dances standing in place. It's another thing to actually move it to music and disco lights swirling around,” Woo said.
Sadhwani cheered the group and waved from the neutral ground.
In addition to carrying the group’s banner during the parades, she’ll fulfill a few other responsibilities that she’s created for herself.
“I've learned that I like to be in the front, to push people out the way,” Sadhwani said.
She’ll also be on the lookout for potential hazards, like potholes, slippery beads or “a pile of poop,” so she can alert the team.
She’ll shimmy and shake to the tunes when the group stops for a break. “Night Fever” by the Bee Gees is her favorite disco song.
And, most importantly, she’ll interact with the crowd and encourage them to dance, and also slap high-fives to kids, especially the shy ones, she says.
“We're not throwing anything, but people give me beads,” Sadhwani said. “So as soon as I get a bead, I give it to the tiny girl in the background.”