Ballroom dancing: What’s waltzing like in Lanka?

By Dinithi Gunasekera


“Dance when you’re broken open. Dance if you’ve torn the bandage off. Dance in the middle of the fighting. Dance in your blood. Dance when you’re perfectly free.”

– Rumi


From the caveman days in which our ancestors probably danced around the fire with an ensemble of ape-like chants to the olden days of the royals dancing in fancy pirouettes to today’s contemporary numbers, dancing has always been a constant companion to mankind, where the idea of aestheticism was never really a foreign one.

Speaking of the art of dance in today’s context, it has extended from being a pleasurable pastime to a competitive sport and dignified career.

Sri Lanka is no stranger to the art of dance, with its own illustrious array of folk dance arts, ranging from the Kandyan dance style of the Hill Country (udarata natum) and the low country dance style of the South (pahatharata natum) to the Sabaragamuwa dance style and many more.

Additionally, the dance forms of the West are also now practised in Sri Lanka, and have masses of adoring crowds.

However, the Extraordinary Gazette notification published on 4 September issued by Minister of Youth and Sports Affairs Namal Rajapaksa cancelled the registration of the Ballroom Dancers Federation of Sri Lanka, the national federation for the sport of ballroom dancing, with immediate effect.

The national federation

The Ballroom Dancers Federation of Sri Lanka is a government-registered sports federation falling under the purview of the Sports Law. The registration of the federation is said to be cancelled due to its failure to follow specific mandatory guidelines that are prerequisites to a national sports association.

Its failure to get the statements of accounts for the years 2016 and 2017 audited, establish provincial or district-level sports associations governed by the parent association, hold sports competitions either locally or internationally, and hold the annual general meetings and elections are among the major reasons for the cancellation.

Also, the lack of a proper address and a proper website to trace the federation’s activities added more fodder for the fire. In conversation with many individuals, we discovered a most barely knew of the existence of such a federation specifically established for ballroom dancing, apart from those directly involved in the field.

Nevertheless, ballroom dancing remains an esteemed art in Sri Lanka even to this day.

Ballroom dancing is a type of social dancing that originated from Europe and the US. It is distinguished from folk or country dance by its elaborately prescribed steps as well as its association with elite social classes and invitational dance events.

Today, ballroom dancing is not only limited to sycophants with velvet sofas and lavish mansions, nor is it contained to top-hatted gentlemen and debutantes sipping vintage wine from the novels of Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott. It is now present and practised all over the world devoid of any relation to social class.

In conversation with Kevin Nugara and Jade Jiggens, two of the most prominent personalities in the field of ballroom dancing in Sri Lanka, The Sunday Morning Brunch was enlightened by the little-known attributes that delineate ballroom dancing in our island nation.

Through this exchange, El Latino Dance Academy Director and professional ballroom dance instructor Nugara shared his personal sentiments on the federation.

“I think the recent cancellation of the federation was a good thing since it did not represent the total community of dancers. Any association or federation must have representation from as many dance schools, clubs, and so on for the sport or other engagements to grow successfully. It was only the federation that was taken off. The state has not taken it off as a sport,” Nugara said, reiterating the lasting impression of ballroom dance, locally.

“Many people of all ages love dance, but it very well might be a shocker if you tell your parents you want to make dance your career. This same line of thinking is very general to the whole of South Asia. We are still getting used to the idea that some may be artists and not astronauts or doctors. But I believe we are slowly drifting away from that mindset.

“I think dance in Sri Lanka holds a high place compared to three decades ago because people now understand that it’s a discipline that takes a long time to master,” he added.

It is always a looming ideology, however, that competitive ballroom dance, better known as “dancesport”, is somehow not held as highly regarded in comparison to other sports. It is the idea of many people that this may be the cause for the federation’s cancellation.

A legitimate sport?

“Ballroom and Latin dance disciplines are as important as any other style of dance. Many countries in the world compete professionally and it’s considered a sport for its athleticism,” said professional ballroom dance instructor, choreographer, and corporate fitness trainer Jade Jiggens.

Adding to this, Nugara expressed that dance is firstly an art and secondly a sport – and in his case, both. Throughout most of his dance career, Nugara has been in competitive dance, having taken part in more than 100 international competitions. He said he, therefore, loves teaching dancesport more and sharing his knowledge of all dance forms in general.

“Why is dance considered a sport? It is because a dancer has to train like any other athlete and have the same stamina, endurance, flexibility, strength, agility, and also the technique required by each style of dance, while looking happy, even though you’re dying inside after a whole day of competition.”

Age-old mindsets and stereotypes

In a world obsessed with sticking labels onto anything, the artform of dance in particular becomes a frequent target of discrimination and stereotyping. The masses undermine the blood, sweat, and tears it takes to become a professional dancer by classifying it under the umbrella of how it does not manifest as what one would expect a mainstream sport to. Also, its practitioners and muses, especially males, are degraded as allegedly portraying something of an effeminate and “unmanly” nature.

In this regard, Nugara stated that this line of thinking is “an old-fashioned mindset, when people were more ignorant about dance as a sport”. Now, however, with the public being exposed to many reality programmes like Dancing with the Stars, where many sports personalities have graced the stage and showcased their skills, there’s a change in the mindset as they see how demanding it was for people of different sporting backgrounds to try and make it, he explained.

“As in the case of being unmasculine, the thinking comes because dancers look less aggressive than in other forms of sport. Looks can be deceiving – we are very aggressive when we compete, but do not show it.”

Waltzing forward in Sri Lanka

“I think those who teach and promote ballroom dancing need to work together and come up with a long-term plan for promoting dance at different levels,” shared Nugara.

“It’s only then the state can act on or take it more seriously as a sport. Dancesport has been recognised as a sport in Sri Lanka since the early or mid-80s. Therefore, the state has given it a chance. It is also a recognised Olympic sport by the International Olympic Committee, which is unlike other performing arts such as figure skating and gymnastics. However, it is run in the South East Asian Games and World Games, and was run a couple of times in the Asian Indoor Games.”

Jiggens, who has more than 10 years of professional dance experience, shared: “I, being a former champion in ballroom dancing myself, am saddened by the cancellation of the registration of the Ballroom Dancers Federation.”

Nugara, in his final remarks, revealed that it would be a good thing to consider introducing forms of Western dance (i.e. ballroom dancing) into the school curriculum as an optional aesthetic activity, while giving traditional dance forms due recognition in the meantime.

In a conversation that sprouted from the cancellation of the national federation that was suspected to be disregard as a marginalised “sport”, it is revealed that the issue has more to do with keeping track of the proper and apt functioning of governmental organisations rather than the need to not give priority to a “non-sport”.