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Dance story

Sunset junior learns about her culture and life while training for performance
by: Submitted photo, Sunset High School junior Neela Ramanujam is ready to perform the Bharatanatya Arangetram, an elaborate classical Indian dance, on Saturday at Portland Community College’s Sylvania Campus. Here she is wearing one of her four costumes.

When Neela Ramanujam takes the stage at Portland Community College's Sylvania campus Saturday to perform the Bharatanatya Arangetram, it will be the culmination of training spent perfecting the intricate East Indian dance.

'It's like a milestone,' said Ramanujam, a junior at Sunset High School. 'I've been learning for (more than five years) so I've basically been working for this moment.'

The performance will effectively mark her graduation in Indian classical dance, a long way from her earlier life living in Texas when she watched her friends dance, fascinated by both their facial features and their graceful movements.

'When I got out here, my Indian friends, they were all enrolled with the Indian teacher I'm learning with now,' said Ramanujam, 15.

Her teacher, Radhika Narayanan, director of the Navarasa School of Dance, is a well-known and respected instructor. Ramanujam's parents, Usha and Gopalan (Ram), knew Narayanan, having both come from Chennai, in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, an area devastated by the tsunami two years ago.

'We're all from the same area,' said Usha Ramanujam. 'Many of the songs (in the dance) are in the same language and the same tongue we speak.'

Although there are many different styles of Indian dancing, Bharatanatyam is one of the oldest and most popular dance forms in South India.

'It shows a lot more facial expressions and emotions,' said Ramanujam. 'It's almost like you're telling a story.'

The dance incorporates nine emotions: calm, fear, anger, valor, love, laughter, wonder/surprise, calmness and disgust in a 2½-hour presentation that incorporates Hindu gods, myths and other aspects of Indian culture.

The chief guest at the dance will be Anne Colletta, a vice principal at Sunset High School, and guest of honor Lawrence Johnson, conductor of the Portland Youth Philharmonic Conservatory Orchestra.

What Ramanujam has discovered during her training is that preparation is everything. Initially practicing for 45 minutes, three times a week, she now trains two to three hours a day.

It's not only the dancing that is time-consuming. So is the creation of the costumes she will wear. Since Ramanujam's family couldn't find anyone in Oregon to sew such elaborate outfits, they had them made during a two-month visit to India last summer.

'It took them about four days for each costume,' said Ramanujam. 'There are four total costumes I'm going to be changing into.'

During her Indian trip, she also learned two of the dances she will perform. Then there's another labor-intensive procedure she can't forget Saturday - the application of special makeup.

'A friend is doing makeup for me so I have to sit for two hours having (her) do the base, eyeliner and lipstick,' said Ramanujam.

The dance will feature eight separate segments or items with one dance lasting 30 minutes.

'Each different item basically describes one story,' said Ramanujam.

Some items are just rhythm steps and graceful movements.

'There are a lot of different hand gestures and you rapidly change the different hand gestures,' she said.

Accompanying Ramanujam during her performance will be a live six-member orchestra featuring two vocalists as well as musicians playing the flute, mridangam (an Indian drum) and veena (a sitar-like instrument).

In addition to dance, Ramanujam is a member of the National and Spanish honor societies, treasurer for Sunset's Key Club, public relations officer of the school's Multi-cultural club, part of the Model UN, a volunteer for Beaverton Strings along with teaching violin classes.

Although she's looking forward to the performance, she says it's been a little nerve-racking. She's learned a lot along the way.

'I guess this event for me has taught me confidence,' said Ramanujam.

Her mother, Usha, shares similar sentiments.

'Right now I'm stressed out,' she said. 'When it's done, I think I'll be proud.'