Grace and poise – The Ballet School of Colombo

By Bernadine Rodrigo

Sri Lanka has its own original dance forms, all of which we honour and appreciate. While there is somewhat of a platform for these cultural dances and possibilities for experts in these fields making careers in the arts if they are truly talented, there are also other forms of the arts which ache to come into the mainstream.

Although it may be difficult for many to open themselves to some of these varieties of dance that have come into the country as a result of various kinds of exposure to the international arena, these dance forms are in fact just as beautiful and graceful as the dances of our own land.
One of these varieties – perhaps one of the most popular types of dance across the world – is ballet. Ballet has been in Sri Lanka for somewhat of a long time, a result of us once being colony of the UK, a western nation appreciative of the art.

While many are students of ballet as children, it is not often that we hear about an individual making a career out of ballet in Sri Lanka, besides teaching. Romina Gyi Wafa and Tara Cooke acknowledged this when asked about how they thought ballet could be more appreciated within Sri Lanka.

Romina and Tara are ballet mistresses who have been teaching the art for as long as they can remember. They now run The Ballet School of Colombo, which, although may seem like it was established in 2016, is actually a school which has been operational since the early 1960s under the name Oosha Garten of Ballet.

Oosha Garten of Ballet was the first-ever ballet school which began in Sri Lanka aimed at teaching the graceful art to the society of this country. However, as the mistresses say, it did not necessarily take the country by storm. Nevertheless, it has been going strong for over 50 years and the school has seen thousands of lovely dancers come and go.

Memory lane

It was established by Oosha Saravanamuttu, a ballerina herself, with the aim of developing the desire and the skill of the art in Sri Lanka. After teaching for more half a century, this beloved ballerina of Sri Lanka became extremely ill and was unable to continue teaching the art. Someone else had to take over soon; fortunately, thanks to Oosha’s lovely teaching methods, she had moulded her students to keep her legacy going.

Romina and Tara are two such dancers who walked into the school when they were extremely young and stuck by it, especially when their beloved teacher needed them to take over. Lovingly, they call her Aunty Oosha, as they say that she was very insistent on people calling her that.

Romina, the elder one of the two, has in fact been teaching under Oosha since she was schooling and was even Tara’s teacher. She fondly recalls dancing after school, sometimes still in uniform at Bishop’s College where Aunty Oosha used to conduct her classes back then.

Oosha seemed to have trained her students to be teachers even as they were still learning, perhaps with the vision that in the future, they would carry her brainchild forward – exactly what they’re doing at present.

When asked if it was challenging to take over, they smiled with the recollection that it was not at all so. They were, as they remember, pretty much already behaving as though the school was their own since they could remember.

An art-form of strength and perseverance

They said that while they were proud of their achievement of having lasted for so long in Sri Lanka and having actually taught thousands of students over many, many years, they do not know how they did it! “We must be doing something right!” exclaimed Tara, with joyous surprise, and stated that they do not conduct classes in a rigid or authoritative style the way normal classes are conducted, but rather in a way in which the student is encouraged to find his or her own way through the music and lead with his or her heart instead of just their feet.

While Romina and Tara started learning ballet when they were very young, they do not believe that age is a constraint to learning the skill. While most of their students are young girls whose parents like to see them performing prettily, Romina and Tara also conduct beginner classes for adults. They are happy to say that their oldest student is no less than 70 years of age and is actually very talented and capable. They also believe that ballet is not just restricted to girls.

Although they cannot recall the number of boys they taught throughout the years, they were sad to say that they never see as many boys as they’d like to. One other bit of knowledge they would like to share with Sri Lankans is that ballet, although made to look easy and rather feminine in most instances, actually requires a great amount of strength and perseverance. It isn’t just about “jumping around on your tippy toes” but about being strong, fit, bold, and most of all, disciplined. While the girls in their programmes are already quite aware of it, they boys of Sri Lanka are most certainly not.

“There is still a lot of stigma around a boy studying ballet in Sri Lanka,” they said. As a result, with the aim of spreading awareness on the availability of the art for boys, they have a programme where they teach it to boys free of charge. They feel extremely triumphant when boys continue on after a bit of exposure, and one of their greatest accomplishments was when two boys joined their school after having participated in a workshop of 20 boys.

“The thing is, when these boys get into ballet, their parents are not always supportive of it,” said Romina. They try to make sure that these boys are not just ballet dancers but also prodigies of other more “masculine” skills such as in sports.

Incentives and motivation

Just as they give incentives to the male dancers in order to encourage them, they also do the same with any other dancer who studies under them. If a ballerina is excellent, she is eligible to receive a full scholarship and perhaps the opportunity to study ballet abroad, and thus the opportunity to make a career out of dance if wanted.

Likewise, if a passionate dancer is faced with financial difficulty too, he or she is gifted with a scholarship so as to secure their contribution to ballet.

One thing that is upsetting, especially for ballet enthusiasts of this country, is that The Ballet School of Colombo is not as popular as we would like it to be.

Especially after its rebranding in 2016, many individuals fail to recognise its legitimacy and the potential of the school. One factor they overlook is that that ballet is not simply Swan Lake or classical ballet so to speak. “Almost all western dance forms stem from ballet,” said Tara. Hence, ballet in itself is composite of various types of dance, including contemporary, jazz, and even tap!

A composite dance form

At present, this wide scope of ballet is being explored and taught by Anton Safonov from Ukraine, who choreographs and does workshops not just in ballet but, as he says, “in movement”. He is a dancer/choreographer in Ukraine who has been dancing since he was born, so to speak, as a result of his mother being a dancer herself.

Every winter, the rest of the world gets to witness his talents as he travels away from the cold to educate those in other countries on the importance of understanding movement and letting the choreography follow, which is something The Ballet School of Colombo strongly believes in.

Therefore, when he decided to come to Sri Lanka, he was extremely taken up by The Ballet School of Colombo and asked Romina and Tara if he could conduct a few workshops with them. Gladly, the two agreed and Anton has, within his first week of being in Sri Lanka, had more fun in Sri Lanka than he expected. He truly believes that Sri Lankans are a genuine and talented race with their smiles from the heart.

He said he is excited to even come back and help the country later in the future, which is to the joy of The Ballet School of Colombo as they will be conducting a production this coming August. He is currently teaching the students different methods of movement and is improving their skills, which would be polished by August.

“It is not about judging people – whether they are good or bad. It is about giving some instructions to them and letting them think about it. They will follow it the way they understand it and when they understand it, anyone can do anything,” ended Anton Safanov.


Photos: Eshan Dasanayaka