Business is not what it once was at the tiny Classical Dance Academy tucked on a back street in the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore. Growing religious conservatism has tainted the classical Pakistani dance tradition. (Michele Langevine Leiby/The Washington Post)

In small groups, the girls begin streaming into the tiny concrete-walled room that serves as a dance academy.

A dozen gangly youngsters plop down on the bare cement floor, chattering incessantly, pulling their hair back into elastic bands and fastening their payal, the clusters of bells braceleting the dancers’ ankles and lower legs. The chatter hushes briefly as the call to prayer rings out from a nearby mosque, and the students scramble to cover their heads with their shawls in silent deference.

Off in one corner, across from musicians readying their instruments (two drums and a harmonium) sits Zeenat Begum, whose daughters — ages 12, 13 and 14 — are preparing to perform. Many Pakistanis put a premium on sons, who are groomed to earn a living and support their families, but Begum has set her daughters on a career path that can lead either to international acclaim or to less-than-honorable reputations in their homeland.

Herself a retired dancer, Begum enrolled them in the back-street Classical Dance Academy in Lahore, defying religious conservatives who make insinuations about female performers and obscene behavior. The classical dance form known as kathak evolved in India as part of religious traditions in which performers use movement and facial expressions to tell a story. Under the influence of the Mughal courts, the most talented dancers became wealthy courtiers and famed entertainers.

But since the advent of the restrictive Islamist rule imposed by military ruler Mohammed Zia ul-Haq from 1978 to 1988, dance has declined in Pakistan. The Pakistan National Council of Arts has made efforts to bring it back to the stage, but many in this overwhelmingly Muslim nation still see dance as a base display of licentiousness. Dancers here remain tainted by the assumption that they also dabble in prostitution.

Begum shies from questions, but studio owner and instructor Zafar Dilawar, an unimposing middle-aged man, is happy to talk. He has spent his life teaching dance at the studio near the old red-light district where his father was also a teacher beginning in 1957.

In the quiet before class starts, the instructor sips tea and explains that enrollment has dropped over the years because many of the dancers have gone abroad in pursuit of money and acclaim.

Most of the dancers at the school train with Dilawar, who proudly claims some of the best actresses in Pakistan among his former students.

“Those who know art appreciate it, and those who don’t, don’t appreciate it,” Dilawar says.

“Religion is a bane on Pakistan. In India, [dancing] is a part of their religion. In Pakistan, the mullahs are not prepared to listen,” he says. “I am among a very few keeping alive the art, otherwise it would have died save there is no dearth of talent in Pakistan.”

Begum, as she taps the ash from the end of a cigarette with a sky-blue varnished fingernail, says her daughters practice up to six hours a day. She hopes one day they will be rewarded for their diligence. The ideal age for beginning dance training is around 10 to 12, and it takes at least two years to become a good dancer.

And it is an ongoing process. Consider Nahid Siddiqui, among the most renowned classical dance performers in the world and also a sexagenarian. “She is still learning,” Dilawar says of the famously graceful woman who began training in her teens. “You learn throughout your life.”

The three sisters’ faces are set with concentration as they go through their routine. They dance with their eyes and with their hands; their feet, now tapping, now stamping, punctuate the rhythmic music and movements. When the music ends, the girls plop back down onto the floor — a bell has come loose during the complicated footwork and must be found and retied; a once-neat ponytail has come undone and must be rebraided.

No one applauds or even says “nice job.” But the instructor, without a flicker of change to his stoic expression, gives them a single nod before he turns his attention to the rest of the class.