Keeping the Past Alive

Preserving ancient Sri Lankan dance in a traditional Western studio

Students of Asanga Domask perform a traditional Kandyan dance, thuraga vannama.

Young dancers file into the CityDance studio in Bethesda, Maryland, and raise their palms to their foreheads, lower them to their chests, gesture out to their teacher and then plié deeply to touch the floor. With this small blessing—to first creator, gods, and teachers and parents, and to the floor/earth on which they’ll dance—the 18 students sanctify their dance space. Teacher Asanga Domask then leads them in a vigorous warm-up to a soundtrack of various popular music.

Domask is an expert in the ancient Kandyan and Low Country dances of her homeland, Sri Lanka, and committed to preserving this fast disappearing artform. At CityDance, she is building a Sri Lankan dance program amid the ballet and modern dance classes the studio is known for. She instructs students in the techniques, history and traditions that her own gurus, including Chitrasena and Vajira Dias, warned in 2005 would disappear within a generation.

Kandyan and Low Country dance are endangered due to the passing of 20th-century dance masters who revived the forms after Sri Lanka’s independence in 1948, and global trends that water down these unique dances. “Younger dancers tend to do more commercialized versions, and both the costumes and movement don’t hold on to the traditions,” Domask says. “I see dances there now with a lot of influence from salsa, flamenco, contemporary dance, both in the movement and the music. But when you go to a world stage and state this is Sri Lankan dance, no one would know it’s not traditional.”

Domask studied both Kandyan dance, called Sri Lanka’s most refined form, and Low Country (pahatharata natum), folk dances from the southern region, as a child and adolescent. After earning a degree in economics at Mary Baldwin College, she returned to what she loved most. Not far akin from Indian forms like bharata natyam, Kandyan dance was connected to the royal court as early as the fourth century BC. It features a percussive base, with flat-footed steps embellished by curving, swirling and undulating arms, wrists and hands. The hand gestures aren’t as complex and varied as in Indian forms. There’s an emphasis on limberness and a common stance, the wide and deep second position plié, which shows the form’s earthly rootedness. Kandyan dance has 24 steps and 18 classical vannams (specific rhythms), representing animal movements, which advanced students must master.

As the four-year-old program grows, Domask hopes to attract students from the conservatory program and beyond. One, Natalie Pagenstecher, a 17-year-old high school senior from Bethesda, studied and performs with SerendibDance Company, Domask’s performing troupe. “Asanga is one of the more inspiring women I have ever met,” Pagenstecher says. “She’s taken on this daunting task of preserving and providing a home for this ancient cultural tradition. To get to work with someone who’s done that and built her life around it, that’s beautiful to me.” DT

Lisa Traiger writes on dance and the performing arts from Rockville, Maryland.

Photo by Paul Gordon Emerson, courtesy of Asanga Domask

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