On a recent spring evening, the audience at Daggy Hall was mesmerized by a rare glimpse of a complex and ancient culture. For more than two hours, Raji Soundararajan, who by day is a research associate with the Center for Materials Research, danced the magical Bharata Natyam.

Though obviously a rare treat, for many Indians in the audience Bharata Natyam was not so exotic as it was for the rest of us. Even without the excellent explanations by Mani Venkatasubramanian, associate professor in electrical engineering, they understood the stories, the rich allusion to Hindu epics danced by Ms. Soundararajan. The rest of us, including many of the younger Indians, knew little of the dance’s rich history and symbolism. Still, we were seduced and delighted.

Natyam means “dance.” Bharata derives from the name of a saint. It also indicates the elements of the dance: bhava, expression; raga, music; and tala, rhythm. Bharata Natyam is one of eight classical Indian dance traditions. Originally, it was practiced by devadasis, dancing girls in temples, servants of the gods. “It is a very rich traditional dance form,” says Ms. Soundararajan, “very sacred.”

Ms. Soundararajan began studying Bharata Natyam in the fifth or sixth grade—a little late, she says. After moving to Vancouver, British Columbia, for graduate work, she continued studying under Jai Govinda, a former ballet dancer. “His lines and the geometry he forms on stage are beautiful,” she says. She gave her debut performance of Bharata Natyam in 1998, the day before her master’s defense. She is also studying under Guru A.K. Lakshman in India. He is a world-renowned teacher of the Kalakshetra style of Bharata Natyam.

The dance is extraordinarily intricate and rich, depending not only on general body movement and legwork, but also on eye movements, of which there are eight specific kinds. There are also nine basic movements of the head, 10 characteristic walks, some 28 hand gestures, and 108 karanas, or leg movements. Then there is this occasional curious sliding of the head from side to side, called attami, like a swaying cobra perhaps, a movement that seems to be used for transition and emphasis.

In spite of its complexity, the dance is entirely enjoyable to the uninitiated by virtue of the sinuous and dynamic movements of the dancer as well as the very expressive and narrative nature of the dance itself. The dance might be sacred, but it is also entertaining. And very sensuous.

Bharata Natyam is not a single dance, but a style and a tradition. Within Ms. Soundararajan’s two-hour repertoire was great variety. The Alarippu compares the awakening of the body with the blossoming of a flower. In the 35-minute-long Varnam, the dancer prays and praises the beautiful son of Shiva: “Oh! Lord Moruga, when will you come to me? I have dressed and decorated myself beautifully, so please come here soon…”

And in the Idadhu padam Tookki, the dancer becomes the ecstatic Lord Shiva, the Lord of Dance.