Traditional Sri Lankan Dance Ceremony Comes to America

By Nicholas Rizzi on May 30, 2014 11:32am 

 The National Women's Dance Troupe of Sri Lanka will stage a "Pahim Path Mangalya," a performance in which Kandyan dance students showcase what they've learned, for the first time in the United States.
The National Women's Dance Troupe of Sri Lanka will stage a "Pahim Path Mangalya," a performance in which Kandyan dance students showcase what they've learned, for the first time in the United States.
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Staten Island Arts

WILLOWBROOK — A traditional Sri Lankan dance ceremony, which is part art showcase and part graduation, will be performed for the first time in the United States in August.

The National Women's Dance Troupe of Sri Lanka will stage a "Pahim Path Mangalya," a Sinhalese phrase for a performance in which Kandyan dance students showcase what they've learned, at the College of Staten Island.

"It's unheard of, it's never been done outside of Sri Lanka before," said Kasuni Navinna, 23, a member of the troupe who will preform at the ceremony. "For a bunch of 11 girls to learn dance at this level in the U.S. and to put together a show like this is a really big effort."

For practitioners of Kandyan dance, a classical form that originates from Buddhist traditions and is similar to India's Bharata Natyam, the "Pahim Path Mangalya" is a way to show what students have learned after years of training.

"It's basically like saying you are now a small-scale master of the art form," said Naomi Sturm, director of folklife for Staten Island Arts, which funded the program through a grant. "You really understand and can really perform this dancing and technique."

Many of the students trained for 10 to 15 years in Kandyan before they amassed the skills to be in the "Pahim Path Mangalya."

Navinna, who was born in Sri Lanka but grew up on Staten Island, started taking lessons with the troupe when she was 6 years old, and will finally get her chance to perform in the ceremony.

"To put so many years into this and to get this huge opportunity to put together a show like that, an official debut as a performer, and get that kind of credit and certification in dance is amazing," she said. "It's such a rewarding feeling."

And while Navinna said "Pahim Path Mangalya" is a normal part of Kandyan dance curriculum and very common in Sri Lanka, it hasn't made its way across the ocean to the United States yet because of a lack of funds and a lack of dancers at the necessary skill level.

However, the troupe, which started in 1992 by Tanya DeSilva, has a group of 11 students who have reached the master level of Kandyan dance to graduate in the ceremony, and with a grant from Staten Island Arts, can afford to put it on.

Staten Island is home to the one of the largest Sri Lankan communities outside of Sri Lanka. Tompkinsville features a stretch of restaurants and shops dubbed "Little Sri Lanka," which was recently promoted as a tourist destination by the city.

The NWDT, currently led by professional Kandyan dancer Dilhan Pinnagoda and drummer Nalinda Peiris, didn't have a large enough local Buddhist temple for the ceremony, so instead chose a large public space at the College of Staten Island.

"They wanted to show another side of Sri Lanka culture, which is classical dance," Sturm said. "Now that they've kind of established themselves on Staten Island, a lot of people really don't understand the history and the culture of Sri Lanka. They wanted to show what is unique with the culture."

The "Pahim Path Mangalya" will be on Aug. 9, from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m., at the College of Staten Island's Performance Arts Center. Tickets are $28 per person.

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