For the past eight years, twins Isha and Alisha Shah have rehearsed the intricate steps of the Bharatanatyam Indian classical dance.
The bells on their feet, called ghungroos, emphasized their movements as they worked their way around the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center stage in Bloomington this past weekend, moving to live music. The choreography was driven by the stories about Hindu gods that their Guru, Padmaja Dharnipragada, helped select.
While the two have performed many times, this particular dance, called a Bharathanatya Arangetram, was different. Staged before 250 friends and family on Saturday, it serves as a way to showcase their growth in the traditional Tamilnadu dance form they have been learning for years at the Nrityalaya Dance Academy in the Twin Cities.
Even now that they have performed, the 15-year-old Eden Prairie High School sophomores are far from finished learning classical Indian dance.
"The more you learn, the more there is to learn in this art, like in any other classical art," Dharnipragada said.
Even more refined and complex dance movements await the Shah twins.
"It's like a steppingstone into the professional dance world," Alisha Shah said. "Everything is perfected."
A link to heritage
Each move — from the stamping of their red-stained feet to different hand gestures — help tell the stories that have been passed down over thousands of years.
The roughly 3 pounds of jewelry that the twins wore on their heads, necks and arms throughout the performance felt light thanks to years of practice, Isha Shah said.
Any nervousness quickly faded after the first song. By the end of the evening, the work the twins had put in since they were age 7 felt even more worth it.
The twin's father, Ameer Shah, said his daughters have always had a passion for dance to connect with their heritage. Ameer and his wife, Divya, arrived in the U.S. in 1999 from Mumbai, India.
The twins saw a dance performance as children and were hooked. In May, they upped their practice routine from a few times a week to six hours a day to prepare for the two-hour performance.
"It's tremendous," he said about the girls' progress. "It has helped them build their discipline, love [and] determination."
Dharnipragada started teaching Bharatanatyam Indian classical dance 30 years ago following her move to the United States from Hyderabad, India. She decided to do a dance performance, which helped her find a community in Minnesota.
Dharnipragada, who started the Nrityalaya Dance Academy in 1992, has taught thousands of students from a variety of backgrounds.
"I started off with half a dozen kids at my apartment," she said. "And now it's grown by leaps and bounds."
Other students at her academy were speakers for the Shah performance and worked behind the scenes. Now that the twins' performance is done, they will help other students with their summer performances.
While the dance's roots come from dances performed in Hindu temples, both Dharnipragada and the family said they do not consider the practice to be religious.
"It's an art," she said. "It's a religion in itself."
Both of the girls plan to join dance teams when they go to college.
"I definitely want to do more performances because I feel like because of COVID we didn't get to do as many," Isha Shah said. "I actually kind of want to help teach other students."