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Yukon’s Gurdeep Pandher and the Relentlessness of Joy

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Gurdeep Pandher has lived in Canada since 2006 and settled in Yukon in 2011 because the small community reminded him of his home village of Siahar in Punjab, India. (Photo courtesy of Gurdeep Pandher)

The world craves more Gurdeep Pandher. He’s committed to not disappoint.

In a time of misery and discord, Pandher has delivered light with his feet and hands and his 32 shining teeth. His is one of the most remarkable stories in tourism. Yet for a man who lives an otherwise simple life in a cabin in the wilderness without running water, keeping up the momentum that has brought him fame isn’t easy. He contemplates quitting, but knows he can’t. Pandher has entered into an unwritten contract with his followers as humanity has with the sun — he will dance and they will smile.

“I have received such wonderful and passionate feedback, it motivates me,” he said during an interview via Zoom this week.

Pandher has gained widespread recognition for his videos depicting him dancing to Bhangra while bedecked in snow boots and a colourful turban with Yukon’s soaring scenery as a backdrop. In 2020, with racial tensions poisoning society and the pandemic fuelling grief and anger, Pandher all but willed joy to flood out of him as far as it could reach. That joy has gone global. He has connected with thousands and thousands of souls from as far as Japan, Africa, and New Zealand, and become a beacon for Canadians stuck at home during the public-health crisis. His social-media following has exploded to greater than 125,000 Twitter devotees.

It’s a rise to notoriety that has been as head-spinning to witness as one of Pandher’s twirling moves amid the snow and lakes of the Canadian north.

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Lake Laberge serves as a co-star for Gurdeep Pandher in one of his dance videos set in Yukon’s pristine wilderness. (Photo by Christian Kuntz Photography)

Though his celebrity could not have been predicted, it wasn’t entirely accidental. Videos of himself dancing in Yukon have been published on his social-media accounts since 2016, shortly after he began teaching Bhangra in Whitehorse. His affinity for the dance began in his home village in Punjab, India’s westernmost state that borders Pakistan and is shadowed by the Himalayan mountains. He was “maybe 4 or 5 years old” when he first danced with his family at a gathering.

In the beginning I was just having fun,” Pandher said of his childhood in India and his earliest recollections of dancing to the Sikh folk music. “But as I became older, I wanted to learn more about Bhangra and was becoming more passionate about it. I decided to join a Bhangra dance school. Some people are just hobby dancers and some want to get better, to be able to understand more about it and do more with it. That’s what it was like for me.”

Pandher took professional classes when he was a teenager and is now making a career of teaching online classes and performing. More importantly, he is bridging cultures with his art and his humanity.

He receives an average of five letters a day — physical letters written with pen and paper, not simply emails, DMs, or heart emojis. Often, they come with gifts. The most touching package arrived from Labrador with a hooked rug featuring a design of Pandher in motion. He clutches it and says it is the most meaningful present he has received from a follower.

“I didn’t realize how much work it is to make a rug like that. When someone told me, I was amazed. We live in this modern world when it seems we don’t have time for anyone. For a person to take the time to create something so beautiful and joyful, it feels very special. It shows there are still people who are willing and ready to spend time to do something for another person,” Pandher said.

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He was also moved by a correspondence from a surgeon in North Dakota who “wrote me that he does surgeries every single day and sees death, trauma, pain, and he comes to my page and looks to me when he is seeking positivity and joy. How can someone who is working in a hospital get positivity by watching my videos? In some ways it is overwhelming and other ways it is giving me fuel to give more and more. To know it is making a difference for people, I have to do it.”

When I first saw Pandher come across my Twitter feed near the start of the pandemic, I grinned and was bemused. I immediately saw the potential for his ability to promote Yukon and its frontier attitude of anything goes as long as you give the effort and accept the weather. My instinct was to reach out to him to write his story. But my own bias made me doubt the general public would think of Pandher as anything but a curiosity or a fad. I didn’t believe a high-stepping turbaned and bearded brown man looking, to some, lost out in the snow could have connected with so many people, from so many backgrounds and nations, during a time of racial disharmony that hadn’t been witnessed in generations, if ever. He and all who have come to appreciate him proved me wrong — and restored some faith when, while locked down and isolated, I had started to feel hoodwinked. The negativity that had become too easy to find in current events and on Twitter had shook my belief in the kindness of people.

Pandher’s relentless joyfulness and his spirit of spreading love as broadly as he possibly can buoyed my spirit. Earlier this month, Pandher made his first official appearance as a tourism ambassador for Travel Yukon, which is part of the territory’s Department of Tourism and Culture and believes he can help attract travellers once it is safe to voyage again. The partnership may seem unusual. There is a small community of Sikhs in Yukon (Pandher said there were only about 30 in Whitehorse when he arrived in 2011) and Bhangra in the sub-Arctic territory is about as foreign a collaboration as you will find in destination marketing. Still, it’s quirky and it’s joyful, and anyone who has visited Yukon will know those are recipes for delight.

“The Yukon has a long history of discovery — from our First Nations who settled and thrived in all corners of the territory, to the intrepid Klondike Gold Rush seekers who chased a golden dream of wanting something more. That history continues today as individuals from all corners of the globe are coming here to discover and share their story. And Gurdeep enthusiastically personifies this. So while we don’t feel there is any dichotomy per se, we do understand that existing preconceptions about the Yukon still exist — and we are actively making inroads to change them. Our wide open spaces and larger-than-life tagline is not just about the physical landscape but it also reflects how individuals are free to share who they are and to showcase their authentic self — in whatever form that takes,” says Travel Yukon’s Jason Marcotte, Consumer Marketing Manager, North America.

Travel Yukon’s embrace is another spark of fuel that helps Pandher push forward and perform. To do what he has come to believe is his reason for being.

We are all humans, sometimes we get bored of doing something and I often think, ‘Should I stop,’” he revealed of the videos he makes, setting up a tripod himself and dancing daily for the camera. “But I have come to see there is a purpose behind the dancing. It has a therapeutic element and it grounds people.”

Except when they’re leaping along with him — as many frequently do. He has danced with politicians, hockey players, school children, and performers from a range of backgrounds, helping to build cross-cultural understanding that confronts barriers with a grin.

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Gurdeep Pandher’s Yukon cabin is in the wilderness near Whitehorse. He connects with social-media followers from around the world who adore his devotion for spreading joy. (Photo courtesy of Gurdeep Pandher)

“Look at me, I’m an immigrant. I don’t look like other people in society because of my skin colour. I wear a turban and don’t dress the way they do. My English doesn’t sound the way it does when others in Canada or America speak. So, I know I’m different. I have had experiences of racism in this country, and some of those experiences brought moments of reflection where I wondered, ‘Why did this happen? Something like that should not happen.’ But then I always think that for a person to do or say something so hurtful it must be because they did not get the education or get the exposure about other cultures from others within their communities and were told different things by their peers that would make them think that way. Because the overwhelming majority of my experiences has been very positive. These incidents of negativity are very few,” he said. “It’s another reason I dance. To bring understanding, harmony between cultures.”

When I asked him what he imagines his life looking like in a few years, Pandher resists the thought, saying he lives for the moment. It’s a good bet to say he will be out in the world dancing. He’ll twist and spin and kick, touch the canopy of air and light above his head and clap sunshine into our lives while the scenery of powder-top mountains holds firm against his back and the soundtrack of tabla and jangle drive him to keep the beat. And reaffirm the promise of Canada. A man who has become an unlikely glue for those of us who want badly to connect to what feels good and true.

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Adrian is the editor of Vacay.ca and VacayNetwork.com. He also edited "Inspired Cooking", a nutrition-focused cookbook featuring 20 of Canada's leading chefs and in support of the cancer-fighting charity, InspireHealth. "Inspired Cooking" was created in honour of Adrian's late wife and Vacay.ca co-founder, Julia Pelish, who passed away of brain cancer in 2016. Adrian has won numerous awards for his travel writing, travel photography, and fiction, and has visited more than 55 countries. He is a former editor at the Toronto Star and New York Newsday, and was the social media and advocacy manager for Destination Canada. His articles have frequently appeared in the Huffington Post, Globe & Mail, and other major publications. He has appeared on national and local broadcasts, talking about travel, sports, creative writing and journalism. In 2019, he launched Trippzy, a travel-trivia app developed to educate consumers about destinations around the world.

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