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The Dance of Life | By Allison Williams

Worlds collided as Sita Chandra, rising high school junior, sat calmly in her parent’s bathroom draped in a colorful costume – stitched by hand in her mother’s hometown in India – a copy of “Julius Caesar” in her lap. Sita read while three women tugged at her hair, applied layers of makeup to her feet, hands and face and talked about what was happening just days away: arangetram. It would be the culmination of years of dance lessons, but to compare this event to a recital is like comparing a wedding to an impromptu dinner date. The arangetram is a two-hour solo, a coming-of-age ritual that Sita would perform in front of 200 friends and family, many of whom flew in from India just for the occasion. Her parents rented Seabrook Auditorium at Fayetteville State University, hired caterers, a makeup artist and photographers, plus a live orchestra and singer to accompany the elaborate and beautiful, even haunting, dances that Sita would perform. Sita had dedicated almost an entire year preparing for it, balancing schoolwork at the Fayetteville Academy with a job as manager for the boys’ varsity basketball team, a place on the girls’ tennis team and community volunteer work. On the day of the arangetram, the boys played in the state playoffs, an event Sita had to miss, worlds once again colliding.

Arangetram literally means to ascend the stage; it’s the first time a student takes the stage for her first full-length solo performance. She is evolving from student to performer, girl to woman, each piece in the solo more difficult than the last. The name only dates back as far as India’s independence movement in the 1930s, but it is based on the Bharata Natayam, a classical dance form developed more than 2,000 years ago in the courts and temples of South India. Once performed as an essential part of daily worship, it remains firmly entrenched in Hindu religion and philosophy. Each flick of the wrist, arc of the arms, even precise eyeball movement, means something different – the smallest of movements can tell an entire story about the rich mythology of Hinduism. In the classical dances of India, there is more to master than steps and rhythm. The effect is one of intricate full-body motion with fingers, eyes, neck and limbs moving in opposite directions in time with the music. It means sacrifice – Sita knows, perhaps better than anyone. “It was a fun journey,” Sita said this summer, after it was all over, “but it was a journey.”

She has been dancing since she was 8 but in the past year, the work intensified with rehearsals three times a week for two and three hours at a time. No family vacations, just school and straight to rehearsal, sometimes in Raleigh, returning to Fayetteville late at night to finish her homework. Sita is the daughter of Drs. Kalpana Krishna and Dinesh Chandra, husband-and-wife physicians. Krishna herself studied the Bharata Natyam as a girl but never performed her arangetram, medical school coming first. But she continued to take lessons even after Sita started to learn herself. For many students, the dance isn’t something to be studied for a few years and then forgotten – it’s a lifetime devotion to a way of life and a guru who guides you.

For Sita and two dozen other Fayetteville girls who began taking dance lessons together as small children, that guru was one woman. The diminutive and soft-spoken Asha Bala shepherded them through the tears, frustration, laughter and hard work, eight of them going on to perform their arangetram, six in the past nine months alone. Bala is a well-respected dancer in her own right who established her own school of dance in her native India. Bala had a career, multiple degrees and a busy life as a mother and wife who traveled all over Europe with her family. Even so, her love for the art form led her to American University in Georgetown where she studied American modern dance. Her husband was in India, their grown daughter in the United Kingdom and there was Bala in a rented apartment in a strange country. And then she took it one step further, applying for a job in North Carolina. And that’s how Krishna, an Indian mother in Fayetteville looking for a place where her daughter could learn an ancient dance form that would connect an old home to a new one, found Bala at E.E. Smith High School. Bala took those small girls and taught them respect and humility for the dance, the tradition, the way of life. “It’s a worship,” she says. “You have to let go of yourself and give yourself completely to the dance. It’s so much bigger than all of us. A lifetime is not enough.”