Pratik Vyas and his friends hit the dance floor early; they carried a roll of bandaging tape for the long night that lay ahead.
For Navratri, an annual Hindu dance festival celebrating the triumph of good over evil, it is best to come prepared.
"There's jumping and shoving and intricate movements that go back and forth," the 27-year-old graduate student from Norwalk said. "People get very passionate, and by the end of the night, your feet are beat."
On Saturday night, Vyas joined more than 2,000 Hindu Indians at the Anaheim Convention Center for Southern California's largest celebration of Navratri, an ancient tradition stretching nine days.
Indians of all ages arrived in their finest clothing: silk saris, mirrored beads and embroidered scarfs. They gathered on the arena floor barefoot and danced in coordinated circles around portraits of goddesses looking down from the center of the room. It was a festive, hypnotic-like ritual that went on for hours.
"I wait for this event all year," said Dimple Lakhani, 31. "There's so much spirit and color and affection. It's the best way to show our culture to our children."
The convenience store owner from Marina del Rey, like most women, planned her outfit months in advance. She wore a maroon top and fuchsia skirt covered in gold sequins, custom made and shipped from India.
The event is organized by the International Swaminarayan Satsang Organization, a temple in Norwalk. It started 35 years ago with a few hundred people in a church auditorium. Today, it goes on for three consecutive weekends at the convention center and draws more than 7,000 people.
It is a grand social gala, a place to connect with old friends, to laugh and dance endlessly — potentially, to find a suitor.
This may be why young people make up the bulk of attendees. And why parents, especially fathers, watch young daughters vigilantly from stadium seats.
"My father would never take his eyes off me when I was younger," said Dipti Chaudhari, 27. "He would say, 'Who is that boy following you around on the dance floor? Stay away from him.'"
Later, as girls come of age, the nursing student said with a laugh, "Parents start to encourage you. They say, 'You know, such and such seems nice. Maybe you can dance with him.'"
The best time for courtship comes during the stick dance, when people move in groups, rotating partners to dance and tap their wooden sticks together. A suitor finds out during that playful, brief interaction if the one he covets is interested too.
Years ago in India, that is how Baiju Bhatt of Claremont met her husband, Satyam.
On Saturday, the mother of two danced her way up to the goddess images that sat under a giant umbrella decorated with Christmas lights.
She carried the couple's 2-month-old daughter, Shree, in her arms and twirled with her joyfully. It was the little one's first garba, or dance. She wore a tiny green, red and yellow outfit sent by her grandfather in India.
"I prayed to the goddesses and told them I am grateful," Bhatt said. "I asked for blessings for my child, for health and happiness always."
Most of the Indians who celebrate Navratri at the convention center are from Gujarat, a state in the northwest coast of India. They are families who have known each other for decades.
In recent years, the event has evolved and become more influenced by Western culture. The band will play a bit of salsa or the Macarena. Last year, they danced to Korean star
More non-Indians have also begun to show up at the dance, often invited by Indian friends. They arrive decked in borrowed saris, mesmerized by the pageantry.
Andrew Fuller, a 46-year-old production manager from Newport Beach, attended his first garba four years ago. He hasn't missed one since.
"I was amazed," he said, his plaid blue and white button-up shirt and jeans standing out in a sea of silk and vibrant colors. "The energy, the kindness, the openness. They welcomed me from the start and showed me how to dance."
Midway through the evening his hard work on the dance floor proudly showed on his feet, blistered and wrapped with white bandages.
"It's been a lot of fun," Fuller said. "But I think I may find a stadium seat and enjoy the rest of the show from there."