Bollywood Dreams

What's a white girl like Samantha Riggs doing in a sari?

"He told me that he was missing India so much before he came to the show," Riggs says. "And then he started to cry. He told me that we made him feel at home.

"That moment made it all worth it."

Don't tell her that love means never having to sew your sari.
Mr. G
Don't tell her that love means never having to sew your sari.
White girls with hope: Samantha Riggs, center, and her Boom Boom Bollywood troupe explore India's cinemusical culture.
Mr. G
White girls with hope: Samantha Riggs, center, and her Boom Boom Bollywood troupe explore India's cinemusical culture.

As Samantha Riggs leads her Wednesday night Bollywood dance class at Domba Studio (the class is one of a kind here in the Valley, but Riggs says there are a few other Bollywood instructors around the country), her ponytailed dreadlocks bounce above her neck, which is tattooed with what she calls "Pictish spiralwork."

"The Picts were a tribe of extremely fierce people from Scotland [actually pre-Scotland]. They were a Mongoloid subspecies," Riggs explains, adding that the Picts are part of her own heritage. "The Romans had to build Hadrian's Wall [in Britain] because they couldn't beat the Picts' asses."

Her bare midriff reveals a huge tattoo that covers the base of her back. If you've seen The Matrix, you might recognize the creation; if you're a Matrix devotee, like Riggs, the design is unmistakable.

"It's a Sentinel," Riggs says, referring to the assassin-like machines from The Matrix that sought out to destroy those who inhabited Zion, the last place on Earth occupied by humans. Riggs is such a huge Matrix fan, she says her friends call her "The Oracle," after the omniscient computer program in the film that takes the form of a wise, chain-smoking grandmother.

"I got this tattoo because I don't want to be separate from the 'system.' I identify more with the computer characters in the movie than with the humans in Zion," Riggs explains, adding that she still has work to be done on the tattoo, including finishing its tentacles. "I was created by a machine, that machine being civilization.

"But somehow I've broken my programming. And now I want to change the machine from within."

Sounds like a lot of hippie nonsense.

"Nah," she says. "Hippies think I'm too dark."

Epaul Fischer must be the exception. The 41-year-old gem artist who lives near Tolleson -- and bears an uncanny resemblance to David Van Driessen, the bearded and spectacled schoolteacher from Beavis and Butt-head -- drives to Tempe every week for the Bollywood dance class. He's known Riggs for nearly 20 years, since before they first performed as Morris dancers together at the Renaissance Festival back in 1989.

He also happens to be the only man currently taking Riggs' class, a problem Riggs says she encountered when putting together the cast for Bollywood Love Rules. The show features but one actual male -- the narrator of the story, Abhinav Puri, who also happens to be the only Indian.

"I expected it, though," she says. "It's not really that big a deal. We just get women to play the parts of the men."

"I've never understood why more men don't do belly dancing and Bollywood dancing," Fischer says, once the hourlong class wraps up. "The Bollywood dancing is really a lot of fun and flirtation.

"In fact, I guess it's better for me to be the only guy here."

Other students in the class say they've become just as enamored of Bollywood films as Riggs, thanks to her energy and enthusiasm for the genre.

"Sam is just one of the best Bollywood performers around," says Kyla Kahn, 37, a Bollywood student originally from New York. "She's been doing this for so long. At the end of every class, she's always smiling . . .

"Which is how every Bollywood movie ends."

"Sometimes, I feel like my life is a Bollywood movie," Samantha Riggs says on a recent Thursday afternoon, after having lunch in downtown Tempe with one of her students, a mother of two who came all the way from the U.K. to spend a week taking private lessons from Riggs.

Riggs' friends would agree with her self-assessment.

"Yeah, that fits Sam pretty well," Epaul Fischer says. "Her romantic life is all about the love that's not quite going right. All her relationships . . . we're all waiting for the ending."

Riggs has had a difficult time with relationships, she says, and she's had plenty of them. Most of her significant others, though, remain in her life today.

"All my exes are still part of my community," she says. "They are part of my creative family. I've been able to keep them all close to me."

None more so than the father of her 11-year-old daughter Josephine, if not in proximity then at least by default. Riggs' relationship with the actor and professor, who now lives on the East Coast, was a brief one, she says. Much like her own parents' relationship, Riggs says her short-lived romance with Josephine's dad simply wasn't meant to be.

"But there aren't any hard feelings there," she says.

Nor was she about to get married simply because she was pregnant. That's just not her style.

"I've never been married, and I'm not sure I ever will be. I'm just not the marrying kind," she says.

But isn't that contradictory to the theme of so many Bollywood films -- a romance that almost always leads to marriage?

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