South Charlotte

A teen's dance of a lifetime

Sonam Shah, 15, is set for the biggest moment of her life: the Bharatanatyam Arangetram.

The event includes a classical dance from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

Indian girls train most of their lives to have a Bharatanatyam Arangetram: a solo performance and dinner. Sonam will perform hers today at UNC Charlotte's Halton Theatre.

Sonam's mother, Paru Shah, explained the event:

Bharata Natyam (or Bharatanatyam) is Sanskrit for "Bharata's dancing." Bharatanatyam comes from the words "Bhava" (expression), "Raga" (music), "Tala" (rhythm) and "Natya" (classic Indian musical theatre).

Arangetram is a form of graduation in which the dancer performs in front of the lord of dance, Nataraja; her guru or teacher; and an audience. The dancer is seeking their blessing to attain more fulfillment in her art. "Arangetram" literally means "taking center stage."

Shah said seven to eight girls in the Charlotte area graduate each year, and there are several teachers. This year, six of Sonam's friends also are graduating. Each will have their own Bharatanatyam Arangetram.

"It is one of those coming-of-age things," said Sonam, a sophomore at Ardrey Kell High School.

"If you do Indian classical, after a certain number of years you have a solo performance," Sonam said. "It's on the same level as marriage. That's how sentimental it is and how much of a commitment it is."

Sonam's guru (dance teacher), Radhika Unnithan, who lives on Mallard Creek Church Road near UNC Charlotte, has been working with several Indian girls for years to prepare them for their Bharatanatyam Arangetram.

Unnithan decides when each girl is ready, usually giving them four months to learn 10 to 15 dances. Performers must memorize about one hour and 45 minutes of solo dance.

Sonam has been training in this type of dance once a week since she was 7. Her training for today's event started in June, when she began traveling from her Bridgehampton home to Lake Norman three or four times a week to meet with Unnithan.

Her family took the carpet out of the family room and moved the furniture so she could practice. Her parents and brother have rearranged their schedules to make sure she gets to and from lessons. Sonam also has to eat certain foods, work out at the gym and memorize a dozen dances.

Paru Shah, a relationship banker at BB&T in Ballantyne, started preparing for the event more than a year ago, during to India. While there, she picked out the colorful handmade fabrics that would be turned into the costumes Sonam will wear.

"The dresses are one of the biggest parts," Sonam said. "They have to look pretty, or you don't feel pretty and you don't dance pretty."

Once the guru set the date, Shah had to arrange for professional photos in full costume, create invitations, book the hall and the caterer, create costumes and decorations and handle other details.

The Shahs expect more than 300 guests.

Paru Shah said she is thrilled her daughter can have this experience. Not every girl has the focus and stamina to make it to their Bharatanatyam Arangetram, she said. "You can only have this once in your lifetime," Shah said.

Sonam's father, Kamlesh Shah, who recently opened the Yoforia at the Epicenter and owns several Subway restaurants throughout Charlotte, also is very excited about his daughter's milestone. He has taken time off work several times to help Sonam prepare.

Sonam talked continually about how much her family has helped. The most exciting thing about her performance, she said, will be seeing her entire family, who will come from all over the East Coast.

Sonam's maternal grandmother, from the Indian state of Gujarat, flew in for the performance, bringing handmade head ornamentation, costumes and jewelry for Sonam.

While school has had to take a back seat to dance this year, Sonam will refocus on her honor-student status and volunteerism after the weekend.

Last year, Sonam volunteered teaching art classes at the YMCA and was in Key Club, Spanish Club and Drama Club. She also competed on her school's debate team and HOSA club. She has participated in Walk to Cure Diabetes, Operation Christmas Child and several dance fundraisers.