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Anna G. Larson, Published August 02 2012

Dance debut: Anu Gaba to perform Indian classical dance

If you go

What: Bharatanatyam Arangetram

When: 7 tonight

Where: Fargo South High School auditorium

Info: Admission is free. Enter from 17th Avenue South for parking.

FARGO - With each click of the finger symbols, Anu Gaba’s feet move precisely on beat. The bells on her ankles jingle to the rhythm of the music. Her eyes dart around the room coyly as her hands and arms extend from her body in controlled movements to tell the story of calling Lord Krishna.

Gaba, a physician at Sanford Health in Fargo, practices the classical Indian dance form known as Bharatanatyam.

“It’s a good way to keep the Indian culture alive in another country,” she said. “I almost feel that you end up being an ambassador for your culture and for your country.”

Although she has performed in Fargo before, Gaba has her Indian classical dance debut performance, or Bharatanatyam Arangetram, at 7 tonight at the Fargo South High School auditorium. An orchestra from India is flying in especially for the event to provide live music.

Arangetram, or the stage debut of a student, is performed after the completion of the basic training of Bharatanatyam. The core of the ritual is the display of the dance form by the student in front of an invited audience.

“This particular event is more like a graduation. Performances like this are usually by invitation, and friends and relatives come,” Gaba said. “People travel distances to attend because it’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”

Gaba studied the dance for 13 years, most recently with Fargo Indian dance instructor Margreat Sam, a North Dakota Council on the Arts artist in residence. Sam taught dance in Mumbai, India, before moving to Fargo six years ago. Sam said it typically takes students at least seven years to graduate, and most students begin learning at age 7.

“It’s rare to see someone my age just graduating,” Gaba said.

In third grade, Gaba’s mother enrolled her in a dance class. She continued learning dance until 10th grade, when pressure to excel in school pushed dance aside.

“Dance took a backseat,” she said.

After completing medical school and residency, Gaba and her husband, Vijay Gaba, who is an anesthesiologist at Sanford Health, moved to Fargo eight years ago.

“We get so much love from the F-M community,” Gaba said. “The Indian community is quite close-knit in Fargo.”

Anu Gaba met Sam in March 2006 at an Indian function, shortly after Sam moved to Fargo from Mumbai. Sam introduced herself as a dance teacher, and Gaba decided to study Bharatanatyam with her. Gaba said her husband encouraged her to start learning again.

“I have the support of my husband, and if it wasn’t for him, there would be no way I could do it,” she said. “He’s very enthusiastic that I continue learning and performing.”

Gaba said Vijay helps her find time to practice despite her busy professional life. She is a clinical associate professor at the University of North Dakota, department chair of medical oncology and hematology at Sanford Health and service chair of the Roger Maris Cancer Center.

“He helps out with everything,” she said. “He’s the man behind the dance.”

Gaba’s reason for practicing dance is to help her remember her country of origin.

“The songs have a religious theme based on Indian mythology, and we might not all be very religious, but the songs tell stories of love and romance and good versus evil,” she said.

Performances can tell a story or focus solely on dance steps. Each dance lasts the length of a song, which is usually five to six minutes. Students making their classical dance debut typically showcase stamina, enthusiasm, range of dance, expression and movement. Gaba will perform seven to eight dances the night of her graduation.

The stage debut of a student shows his or her ability to incorporate gestures, feet work, hand movements and facial animation into a dance.

Sam said it can take dancers up to three months to learn one move.

“Dancers first learn how to use their feet, then their hands, and lastly their faces to play out a story,” Sam said. “When steps are strong, the dance is good.”

The Gabas’ daughters also practice dance. Harshita, 16, practiced dance for three years, and Nishita, 11, has been Sam’s student since 2006.

“For my girls, who are growing up here, it’s good for them to see me doing the dance,” Anu Gaba said.

Besides dance, Gaba enjoys marathon running and cross-country skiing with her family. She hopes to someday teach children Indian folk dance.