The Ves Dancers – an expression of Sri Lankan culture

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The Kandyan, or up-country (udarata natum), dances, are regarded as the classical dance tradition of Sri Lanka. Kandyan dancers are traditionally performed only by male dancers. The technique, partly derived from South India, focuses on dynamism, powerful footwork, leaps and whirls. It has a vast repertoire, partly originating from an ancient indigenous ritual dance, partly influenced by South Indian dances.

Kandyan dances are now probably the country’s most important cultural export. However, the most spectacular performances can still be seen in a religious context, particularly during the annual Kandy Perahera procession in the city of Kandy.

The History

It is generally agreed that the roots of Kandyan dances lie in an ancient village ritual, called kohomba kankariya. It has been an important folk ritual of the regions of the Kandyan kingdom. It combined dance, music and dance

Like most of the birth legends of Sri Lankan theatrical traditions, the story of the origins of kohomba kankariya also tells us about the intervention of supernatural beings to cure a king. The original ritual is rare nowadays, but some of its dances are included in the repertoire of Kandyan dances.

In 1955 the technique of the Kandyan dances was standardised for the use of schools and art universities. Kandyan dances are now also performed at secular social festivities as well as in dance shows, aimed at either local audiences or tourists

The Technique

As the drums beat, the dancer moves his hands, feet and body in perfect harmony with fellow performers, until the crescendo of his performance, which every person in the audience awaits in anticipation. The back flips, acrobatics and leaps are spellbinding. The famous pirouettes (a twirl on one foot) is the highlight of the performance.

In one of the basic poses of Kandyan dance the back is bent, and the legs are in a very open position, while the arms are at shoulder level and the fingers are stretched forwards

Another basic pose of a ves dance, which clearly reflects the South Indian influence

Another basic pose of a ves dance

The Repertoire

The Kandyan dances have a rich repertoire. They have been an integral part of the Kandy Perahera procession since the early 20th century, and thus many of the dances have a procession-like quality. Like many of the Sri Lanka dances, Kandyan dances can also easily be performed as part of a procession, which freely moves along streets or the grounds of temples. This is partly possible because the drummers are also able to dance.

The Costume

The Ves dancer had to traditionally don a costume of 64 ornaments, believed to be a replica of the attire worn by the associated deity, god Kohomba. This attire is unique to the Ves dance recital. The upper body is bare, except for a flimsy web like apron made of shells and beads.

The pleated white cloth covering the lower torso is draped around the waist and tucked, creating the look of loose-fitting pants. The silver headgear characterises the Ves dancer. From the conical top of the headdress, spreads seven spokes that look like rays, sometimes similar to flames and even leaves. From the seven corners dangle little shining trinkets. The headdress is a silver forehead plate. With mango-shaped ornaments for the ears and cobra shaped sheaths over the arms, the ensemble is complete, and the Ves dancer is ready to gyrate to the beat. The Ves dance is an embodiment of Sri Lankan traditional dance narrations.

As the Ves dancer whirls, the long ribbon suspended from his elaborate crown-like headgear makes the most energetic flicking movement. The Ves dance is more than just a ritual; it is a sacred recitation for protection against misfortunes. Hence, the Ves dancer’s costume is also considered sacred. It is not stored just anywhere, but is usually placed in a separate shrine room or at the village temple. 

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