Aparna Parthasarathy stomps her feet like pistons on the stage of the Performing Arts Center at Portland Community College's Sylvania campus, the jingle of the half-pound bells strapped to her slim ankles marking time to the thunder of an Indian drum. A pair of young Indian girls dressed in silk saris crouch at the lip of the stage, hungry for a closer look at the magnificently costumed dancer.
Oblivious to the chatter of her younger admirers, Aparna stretches her arms and freezes like an ancient statue. Now she is Saraswathi, the Indian Goddess of Learning. She plunges into a deep lunge with her hands cupped together--now she is a lotus blossom.
A capacity crowd of 400 packs the arts center's seats this Super Bowl Sunday. Another 50 well-wishers are still waiting out in the lobby, hoping to snag an empty spot at "halftime." Worlds are colliding on this Portland stage. Blame it on the 9-year-old with kohl-darkened eyes.
The spotlight falls on Aparna, the American-born daughter of two natives of India, at her Bharatanatyam dance graduation, or Arangetram. The solo show is a milestone other students at Anita Menon's Anjali School of Dance--located in a Hillsboro office park--typically hit when they are 16 or 18 years old. Aparna, who turns 10 this Friday, is the youngest student in the Pacific Northwest to perform the intense rite of passage.
When she's not rehearsing or plowing through homework, the fourth-grader at St. Mary's of the Valley might be reading about Nancy Drew or Harry Potter. She likes playing computer games and typing because "you get to push buttons."
She doesn't seem to realize that she's accomplishing a feat as potent and mystical as any sorcerer's charm, despite being too young to wave a wand at Hogwarts. She loves to dance--it's as simple as that.
"I like the stories we tell and the intricate movements," Aparna says. "It's a fun feeling when I dance." As for being referred to as a "dance prodigy" by the Hillsboro Argus last month, "I just feel regular," she says, confused. "I mean, I am regular."
The details of mastering this ancient art form would be a lot for any dancer to handle. For graduation, Aparna performed tests that showcased the trademark elements of the classic Indian form: rhythmic dance, storytelling and facial expressions. The highlight of the evening was the Varnam, a 30-minute work that tells the story of a young maiden who is waiting for the Lord Krishna to come play with her.
Aparna was just 6 when she started taking Indian dance lessons with Menon, herself a gifted dancer who performed her own graduation at age 11 in India. Since November, the pair have been rehearsing two hours a day, five days a week.
"This graduation is physically demanding on an adult--let alone a 9-year-old," Menon says. "She must have a lot of stamina to perform it." Stamina, as well as an appreciation for an ancient Hindu temple dance that once served to connect India's ethnic groups. Today, Bharatanatyam still serves to bind together the thousands of Indian families in the Portland metro area as a new generation explores its history and mythology.
It's a tough job sometimes: Menon says she often has to use American pop culture to help her dancers learn to express the emotions of the stories in traditional dances. While practicing a dance based on a story of romance, one teenaged student asked how to act like she's in love with Krishna when he's God. Menon replied, "Pretend Krishna is Brad Pitt."
"We take for granted all the cultural opportunities we have in India," says Archana Ranjan, a vocalist and one of the volunteer musicians who accompanied Aparna's performance. "Here, it is harder to find ways to continue our traditions. So we jump at a chance like this."
Near the finish of Aparna's performance--which lasted nearly three hours--the measured vocal chants, the thump of the mridangam drum and the twang of the veena fill the auditorium. Aparna inhales and marches to the middle of the stage for her final dance, the frenetic Thillana. The signature angles of the Bharatanatyam form are present: The squatty plié that serves as the dancer's home position, the slicing arms and articulated fingers cleaving through air like blades through butter. Gone is the bookish child with the easy smile; replacing her is a dancer with the concentrated expression of a young mystic.
The dancer's hands convey a tethered power as they whip and saw, her feet beating an ancient rhythm into the painted wood stage--beating out an ancient rhythm as Aparna whispers to us of her own mysteries to come.
Bharatanatyam is the oldest of classical dance forms in Southern India. It originated as a sacred dance performed in Hindu temples to pass on the stories of gods and goddesses.
Costumes for this form of Indian dance can be weighty: Aparna Parthasarathy's headpiece weighs two-and-a-half pounds, while her necklaces, bracelets, bells and flowers add up to another three pounds.
Aparna changes costumes three times and changes jewelry five times while performing the Bharatanatyam graduation. The silk for the costumes, which cost $650, was ordered from India.