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Sisters "graduate" to full status as Indian classical dancers

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Woodbury sisters Akshaya nd Swetha Ganeshkumar rehearse classical Indian dance at Kala Vandanam Chakra Studio in Lowertown. After years of work, the two made their official debut, or Arangetram, July 6 at the Oltman MIddle School auditorium. William Loeffler / RiverTown Multimedia 2 / 4
Akshaya Ganeshkumar, 15, rehearses classical Indian dance at Kala Vandanam Chakra Studio in Lowertown. William Loeffler / RiverTown Multimedia 3 / 4
Swetha Ganeshkumar, 18, rehearses classical Indian dance at Kala Vandanam Chakra Studio in Lowertown. William Loeffler / RiverTown Multimedia 4 / 4

Two Woodbury teens reached a spiritual and artistic milestone July  6, when they danced before family and friends in the auditorium at Oltman Middle School.

Sisters Swetha and Akshaya Ganeshkumar performed their first concert as official exemplars of the Indian classical dance form known as Bharatanatyam. Their graduation, or Arangetram, marked their formal presentation as qualified dancers by their teacher, or guru.

Swetha, 18, and Askhaya, 15, studied for nearly nine years under, Suchitra Sairam, an Indian classical dancer, choreographer and teacher in St. Paul.

The private concert was a final exam of sorts in which the two had to execute the fundamentals of the classical dance repertoire in a suite of 8-10 dances. They performed for nearly three hours with a 15-minute break.

Bharatanatyam, which has its roots in ancient Sanskrit texts, requires dancers to interpret  Hindu culture, religion, myth, architecture and folk tales through footwork, pantomime, hand movements and facial expressions.

“You have to use your entire body, every aspect, not just physically, even the use of the eyes, the neck, the head, all of that creates the grace and the subtleties,” Sairam said. “I don’t think there’s an inch on our body we don’t use completely.”

After learning the intricacies and nuances of a particular dance, the Bharatanatyam dancer/disciple must learn to perform one after the other in a seamless flow.

“A lot of young students, they’re very, very good young dancers and they may be able to do one or two pieces,” Sairam said. “But to be able to do a full suite and to do it well requires a full level of ability and commitment.”

Before Sairam deemed the sisters ready, she had to satisfy herself that Swetha and Akshaya also had sufficiently developed their dramatic talents over the years.

“Do they have the capacity to emote and express more deeply, do they have the capacity for more complex emotions and more complex storytelling?” she said.

A grueling and graceful art

The sisters began rehearsing for their debut a year and a half ago, when Swetha was a senior at Woodbury High School and Akshaya was in her freshman year at East Ridge High School. They juggled studies, internships and activities such as the orchestra and student council.

“The hardest part is just having enough energy to do it,” Swetha said. “You’re doing it back to back. We can’t show onstage that we’re tired. Now we can do it without totally being wiped out at the end.”

“There’s a lot of stamina involved,” Akshaya said. “We have to build up this stamina to be able to complete so many dances in three hours. It’s a lot of drilling, it’s a lot of practice. During the school year, it can be a little hard coming from school and doing practice for two hours. There is that aspect of building up stamina over a long period of time.”

Their father, Ganesh, is from Tamil Nadu in southern India, where the seeds of Bharatanatyam took root more than 2,000 years ago. Their mother, he said, had wanted to study Bharatanatyam but never had the opportunity.

“A lot of the stories are about devotion, so we have to connect that to our real lives and how we’re affected by all these stories and how we react to them,” Swetha said. “Since we don’t live in India, this dancing is one way for us to learn more about our religion, because we’re not surrounded by it like if we were living in India … so this is one way we can learn about our culture and religion.”

The concert was also a tribute to their guru Sairam, who guided them through their journey during grueling sessions at Kala Vandanam Chakra Studio in St. Paul.

“In our culture there’s a special relationship with you and your teacher, your guru,” Swetha said. “And so we value her so much … when we dance, we not only dance for ourselves, we dance for our teacher who taught us and also for her teacher, because that legacy has been carried down.”

William Loeffler

William Loeffler is a playwright and journalist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He worked 15 years writing features for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He has also written travel stories based on his trips to all seven continents. He and his wife, Michelle, ran the Boston Marathon in 2009. 

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