University City

Preparing for the dance of a lifetime

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

It's a classical dance from the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

Indian girls train most of their lives to have a Bharatanatyam Arangetram - a solo performance and dinner.

Sonam will have hers today at UNC Charlotte's Halton Theatre.

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

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 theater). Arangetram is a form of graduation where 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 Bharatanatyam Arangetram

"It is one of those coming-of-age things," said Sonam, who is a 15-year-old sophomore at Ardrey Kell High School.

"If you do Indian Classical, after a certain number of years you have a solo performance. 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 various Indian girls for years,.

Unnithan decides when each girl is ready, usually giving them four months to learn 10 to 15 dances. The performer 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. Training for today's event started in June. Since then, she has traveled 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.

Shah, a relationship banker at BB&T in Ballantyne, started preparing for the event more than a year ago when she went to India. While there, she picked out 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 sets the date, Shah had to arrange for professional photos in costume, create invitations, book the hall and caterer and create costumes and decorations.

They expect more than 300 guests.

Shah said she is thrilled that her daughter can have this experience. Not every girl has the focus and stamina to make it to their Bharatanatyam Arangetram.

"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 around Charlotte, also is very excited about his daughter's milestone. He has taken off work several times to help Sonam prepare.

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

Sonam's maternal grandmother has flown in from India. She is from the state of Gujarat. She brought 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 school year, she taught art classes at the YMCA and was in the Key Club, Spanish Club and Drama Club. She also competed with her school's debate team and HOSA club. She has participated in Walk to Cure Diabetes, Operation Christmas Child and several dance fundraisers.

Now, she's focused on dance.

"I'm not very worried about the performance," Sonam said. "I guess my biggest fear is tripping and falling on stage."