Sivaani Anandkumar sat at a square table just outside the auditorium at the Bloomington Masonic Heritage Center, knees bouncing and eyes full of nervous anticipation. All around her, family members — some wearing traditional Indian dress, others in American street clothes — shuffled around equipment as they surveyed the auditorium’s walls and seating and stage lighting.
They poured themselves steaming styrofoam cups full of Indian coffee: sugar, frothed milk and finely ground coffee, they said. Sweeter than American coffee, and stronger. It was nearly 6 p.m., but it would be a long night.
Sivaani is a freshman at Shakopee High School, but in two days, she’d practically be getting married, and her spouse would be a traditional Indian form of dance called Bharatanatyam. Family members would fly in from Seattle, Texas, Washington, Colorado. Her grandmother had already flown in from India. Some of her family members who live in Minnesota arrived that Thursday night to watch her rehearse and set up for the event. Altogether, they were expecting 300 friends and family to watch her perform.
The recital on Aug. 24, also known as Arangetram, is the debut of Sivaani’s dancing career. It comes after eight years of dancing practice. For Bharatanatyam dancers, this kind of recital is a long-term goal and takes years of practice before the dancer’s teacher, or guru, says the dancer is ready. The Arangetram consists of a two-and-a-half hour solo routine. Throughout that time, the dancer must not waver when holding positions and keep a consistent smile. Arangetram dancers have usually never performed a solo dance prior to their extensive solo routine.
“The hardest part is just building up the endurance to do it,” Sivaani said. And that endurance took eight years and thousands of hours to perfect. In two days, she’d showcase her hard work. The three-hour-long after-school practices, the sunny summer days spent inside a studio — they’d pay off with this one performance.
Sivaani looked across the empty auditorium that would soon be filled with hundreds of people who would fly in from across the country and world to watch her. She didn’t seem surprised when she stared at the sheer number of empty seats.
“Towards the beginning, I was like, am I actually going to be able to do this?” she said. “But I can do this.”
The last six months, she’d spent up to six hours practicing each day. She knew the routine like she knew her own name. And when she was 10, her dance instructor Padmaja Dharnipragada at Nrityalaya Dance Academy in Edina, told her she was ready to perform the solo debut.
Sivaani’s mother, Sangeetha Anandkumar, said most dancers aren’t told they are ready until the end of high school. She said the family decided to hold off on the recital for four years because they wanted Sivaani’s grandfather to be able to see the performance. At the time, he couldn’t fly to Minnesota from India because he was battling cancer. He passed away last year.
“We weren’t expecting that to be the last time we saw him,” she said, referring to a visit he paid the family a few years ago, when he took a video of Sivaani at dance practice on his iPad.
‘It’s like a wedding’
Sivaani’s grandmother purchased two traditional Indian dresses from India for her to wear on the day. A professional hair and makeup artist was hired to get her ready. There would be an orchestra, stage lighting professionals, a post-recital reception and a professional photographer. And Sivaani’s family rented out the heritage center auditorium for the private event.
“It’s like a wedding,” Sangeetha said, laughing. “You can work to make a few things cheaper, like food. But there are some things you just can’t compromise.”
The morning of Aug. 23, Sivaani woke up around 8 a.m. and drove straight to the auditorium, where her makeup and hair artists worked on her for three to four hours. Then, the first dress went on. Her family walked onstage, where a priest was there to pray in front of a small shrine. And half an hour later, people started trickling in until the seats were filled, Sivaani said.
She danced between eight and 10 pieces, keeping track of her motions with the beat of the live orchestra, slightly tweaking her positions when the players would carry a note longer than she’d rehearsed with recorded music. But she was prepared for those glitches, too. That’s part of the art, she said: adapting on the fly, when you are fatigued and are standing in front of 300 people.
Most 14-year-olds wouldn’t be able to handle the pressure, Sangeetha said, but Sivaani is not like most 14-year-olds. She said she and her husband did not push their daughter to do any of this, but that she chose to carry through with the recital because it’s her passion.
Sivaani said the recital wasn’t the destination, but the beginning of her relationship with dance. She planned to go back to the studio the following week.
“I’m still practicing, but it’s not as rigorous as it was,” she said after her performance. “And school is about to start and I’ll be busy again.”
On top of dancing, Sivaani will play volleyball for Shakopee High School as a freshman, and she plans on participating on the speech team, as well as mentoring other younger dancers now that she’s graduated, in a sense. And she’s not positive, but she thinks she wants to be a pediatric oncologist, so she’s got a bit of research to do.
“But I still have time to figure that out,” she said.