By Jill Dougherty reporting from Kolkata
The girls step forward, chanting rhythmically, their breath coming in explosive waves.
At first they look delicate, vulnerable. Their feet are bare. They wear brightly colored tops held with a sash of traditional fabric, and cream pantaloons secured with a saffron belt.
But their vulnerability is suddenly transformed, their arms moving in karate-chop gestures, their voices slashing the air.
These are teenagers who once worked in the sex trade. They live in Kolkata, India, a nation that, according to non-governmental organizations, has approximately 3 million female sex workers. Some of them were trafficked, held against their will. Others were sold into prostitution by their families. Others left the work, only to return to it later, the way an abused woman returns to a spouse who continues to beat her.
The U.S. State Department issues an annual Trafficking in Persons Report, the world’s most comprehensive resource of governmental anti-human trafficking efforts.
In its 2011 report, the department says, "The government of India does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so."
But in these dances you see none of that.
The girls are part of Kolkata Sanved, a dance therapy movement founded in 2004 by Sohini Chakraborty, a dance sociologist and dance activist.
Kolkata Sanved conducts workshops around the world, providing an alternative approach to recovery and healing for victims of violence and trafficking, for mental health patients, for women and children with HIV /AIDS, and other vulnerable people.
"Sanved" means "that which responds to stimulus" and the approach tries to break the barriers of traditional dance, employing body movements to transform victims of sexual abuse into "proactive advocates" for themselves.
The girls came to Kolkata's Cultural Center to perform for U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. As they began, the visitors who filled the hall fell silent and the secretary's face became a study in concentration as they watched five teenage girls suddenly filled with a power that comes from within.