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Natasha Jayasuriya on dancing away your Covid blues

By Dimithri Wijesinghe

As the pandemic has pressed on, people have found innovative ways to come together. And as art transcends all barriers and boundaries without any restrictions, there are those who have stepped forward to spread the joy of rhythm.

With dance instructors taking point to conduct dance lessons online for their students, to keep them active and moving while being able to look forward to a part of their day that is colourful and filled with music, Colombo’s very own Deanna School of Dancing (DSD) has made the effort to provide their students with a ray of sunshine to their otherwise dreary days.

The state of the world as it is now stands is enough to daunt even the toughest, but dance with its unique power can bring hope and positivity into a world that is struggling under a huge cloud of uncertainty and gloom, and with their dance studio temporarily closing, DSD has taken matters into their own hands as they have begun to conduct online dance lessons for their students.

DSD is an elite dance school in Colombo established in 1980 and is registered with the Royal Academy of Dance (UK). The school’s vision is to produce serious professional dancers and to develop a unique and internationally recognised approach to the education of dancers while also encouraging them to acquire a special and highly valued approach to their art. DSD shared that the collective enthusiasm with which their students share their vision is what gives the school its unique atmosphere and its strong personal identity.

The school on any regular day pre-Covid, has two dance studios which can occupy around 50 students each. The school, which was founded by its namesake Deanna Jayasuriya, reputed as one of Sri Lanka’s most recognised ballet teachers, has contributed greatly to the development of dance in the island as they conduct not only classical ballet classes but also street jazz and hip hop classes for children aged six years and above.

We spoke to Natasha Jayasuriya, Deanna Jayasuriya’s youngest daughter who took over from her mother as Principal of DSD in January 2015, about how the school, their teachers, and most importantly their students have fared during these uncertain times of Covid-19.

Natasha Jayasuriya

Natasha, as Artistic Director of the school, has been teaching alongside her mother since 2003, and having been exposed to the art of dance since infancy, has an impressive portfolio including classical ballet, hip hop, street jazz, tap dancing, and Spanish dancing, and she is also a Gold Standard Ballroom and Latin American dancer and a qualified ballet teacher of the Royal Academy of Dance (UK).

Speaking about the programmes they have begun to run online, Natasha shared that the school usually has students starting from the age of two-plus to 18 years old, and they have a number of students in their 20s as well. She said that they have been conducting online classes for their students and in doing so, they’ve had to make some changes to the otherwise pre-scheduled lesson plans the teachers would normally execute in the studio.

She shared that at first, when they first started online classes, back when the first lockdown was initiated, it was purely as a means of staying connected with their students, to bring some positivity to their lives. They, like many of us, did not foresee what was to come, hoping things would settle down soon enough.

She said that they began online sessions that were quite light-hearted and breezy; an opportunity for the students to dress up. But once they realised that things were not going to settle down any time soon, she said that they soon adapted to conduct regular classes. However, there were a number of challenges.

Natasha shared that the first time around, there were many difficulties particularly in managing time slots, with the students having to attend school classes online as well. “Some schools conducted classes in the morning and there were others that conducted classes in the afternoon and evenings, which clashed with our lesson timings and unfortunately, there were many students who were unable to attend our classes,” she said. Nevertheless, she added that thankfully this time around, school lessons were all conducted in the morning hours, allowing them to freely schedule classes in the evenings.

Following the first lockdown, DSD opened for a period of one month, during which strict guidelines were adhered to when conducting lessons, with them going so far as to mark the studio floors with tape, thereby allocating a dedicated space for each student so they maintain social distancing. Natasha also spoke about the transition and adjustment to and from online lessons, stating that children are a lot more resilient than we may give them credit for; they were able to go from having done at-home lessons to studio sessions that required them to be safe and follow all the necessary health guidelines, without any hassle, she said.

She also shared that as for the teachers, while there was definitely a period of adjustment, everyone was extremely supportive in carrying out these classes for the sake of their students. She said that during the times when they were able to move around, teachers would often conduct classes in the studio where the lighting is better and there is more space. However, after the lockdown was reinstated, they had to make do with their home spaces and they have been real troopers in keeping up, she said, adding: “There are some who are conducting classes in their balconies!”

She also spoke of the nature of conducting classes and some of the concerns students have when attending online lessons, sharing that she herself is a mom with a three-year-old and she understands the challenges that come with helping them stay focused. However, she further added that students who come for ballet are those who love to dance and because of that passion, they do not have trouble focusing. She noted that this new setup allows them to showcase their skills and efforts to their families and that some students look forward to performing in front of their families, to show them what they can do and what they have learnt.

Natasha elaborated that as it is essentially just her who appears on the screen for the students, it feels to them as if it is a private lesson and they would feel that she is focusing entirely on them which allows them to stay focused. She even said that there have been occasions where certain students who would otherwise get distracted in class at the studio have had better focus online as it is just them and their teacher.

Natasha said that they have made efforts to keep the lessons fun and dynamic for the students, with them even carrying out arts and crafts projects and having themed lessons where they get to dress up and perform in different settings. She said that the majority of their students would have travelled abroad during their summer vacation. However, they were denied the opportunity this time around and so they conducted some lessons that were themed around travelling the world, with each lesson taking them to a new destination.

She said that all this effort is in order to ensure that their students are safe and happy, to keep them moving and dancing during these times, to provide them with positive energy, and even to allow the parents some solace to witness their children enjoying themselves whilst learning. Natasha said that the online classes have truly been fantastic, and she believes that they have been given the opportunity to keep the positivity going. She makes sure to remind her students also that they are blessed to be able to continue as they do and to keep in mind that they should stay positive when there are many who cannot.

Finally, she shared that she can see that this is making a positive impact and that their efforts are paying off. “I can see it in their faces; kids don’t lie, they will tell you straight away. They tell us that they had fun and that they miss us and as much as it is helping them, it has helped us teachers to keep in mind that we are blessed to be able to do what we do.”

 

To join online classes at DSD, visit https://www.facebook.com/deannaschoolofdancing

Website: www.deannaschoolofdance.com

Instagram: @dsdsrilanka