(PARKER ESHELMAN ~ Columbia Daily Tribune)
The pleats on their skirts spread into fans when they walk. Raven braids adorned with citrus blossoms hang like drapery down their backs. Faces are like those of porcelain china dolls, painted with creamy mocha makeup.
Even the fussiest of toddlers in the audience are still in their presence.
But their appearances become secondary when the girls begin to move to the music. A string of hypnotic hums explodes into fiery rhythm ta-keeta-ta-keeta dee-di-thay-dee-di-thay and their bare feet slap the wooden floor. Bells strapped to their ankles add a jingly beat. Brass bangles clink as they slip up and down slender arms.
The girls twist their wrists, splaying red-tipped fingers open like water lilies. Eyes, lined like almonds with heavy black liquid, blink coyly from side to side.
(AP Photo/Columbia Daily Tribune, Parker Eshelman)
The Arangetram, which literally means "ascending the stage," is a graduation marking the end of years of training in the traditional Indian dance known as Bharata Natyam, a dance form that dates back thousands of years.
Bharata Natyam uses rhythmic patterns, symbolic poses and complex hand gestures to depict Hindu traditions and religious customs.
"It's more of a direct way to connect with your culture," said Sharma, a junior at Rock Bridge High School.
"Yeah, we grew up reading the stories, but it's one thing to read them and it's another thing to actually act them out in a way. So you kind of become more familiar with the stories when you are the story."
Added Vellore, a Hickman High junior: "Instead of learning about the culture and myths through the stories, it's kind of a different perspective. You're learning it through an art."
Bharata Natyam is a triathlon of physical challenges, requiring perfect posture coupled with the flexibility to stretch legs high into the air while balancing statue-like for extended periods.
Dancers must have the stamina to perform lengthy routines for hours without showing signs of exhaustion. And they must have acting skills to make sure the audience understands their characters.
The three young women did all of it on stage at Rock Bridge High School one late summer evening in front of about 350 family members and friends. Their routine and appearance were so flawless, one young child in the back row believed them to be "princesses."
The allure of becoming princess-like often attracts young girls to the dance style, said St. Louis-based dance instructor Asha Prem.
"Girls usually love the costumes and the jewelry," she said. "They serve as incentives."
Helfer, a Hickman graduate now attending Boston University, remembers watching other dancers as a child. That's why she added Bharata Natyam lessons to her schedule about six years ago.
"I got interested because I used to see the older girls perform it in Indian Night," she said, referring to an annual cultural event at the University of Missouri-Columbia. "It always, you know, looks really glamorous and exotic when you see other people doing it with all the costumes and the jewelry."
But underneath the layers of vivid silks and glittery gold accessory lie years of unyielding practice. Before the stories come alive with gestures and emotions, dancers must learn rigid technique, how to stand and bend with proper alignment.
"Not at all glamorous," Vellore said.
And Prem has high standards. Her students spend years learning basic techniques before even attempting to add the hand gestures or emotions or the fancy costumes.
Accurate finger placement and eye movements are critical. Every sign, every look has meaning; one wrong move could change an entire story theme or plot.
"Graduation is not easy," Prem said. "It takes a lot of determination and hard work."
Ultimately, the technical movements, the hand gestures and the emotions will piece together to serve a larger purpose.
"The dance stories have a lot of morals about the destruction of arrogance and destroying evil," Prem said. "They learn to be very humble."
The three dancers agreed their years of practice and hard work have trickled into other areas of their lives. Through dance, they've learned patience, commitment and dedication.
The greatest benefit has been earning a deeper understanding of their heritage, they said.
"I don't feel as disconnected now," Helfer said. "It makes me able to relate to things more. Now, I'm learning something about where my mom comes from."
All three are the first in their families to learn Bharata Natyam. Their parents are thrilled.
"It's a wonderful chance to learn more about the culture and traditions," said Anantha Gopalaratnam, Vellore's mother. "The main thing is we come from a very rich culture and heritage. It would be a shame not to expose that."