A devil of a dance | Daily News


A devil of a dance

Juliet Coombe learns that ancient healing practices not only work, but also require decades of professional training, when she tries on one of the devil dancers costumes used to remove evil spirits from the body she realises in the process just how challenging this ancient Sri Lankan medicinal practice is.

It is one thing to hire a devil doctor to cure a family member or watch a devil-dancing event in a Sri Lankan village at midnight to stop a person of illness or enjoy a five star cultural show explaining all the nuances of this amazing ancient art form, each time done with dramatic fire movements to conjure out the bad spirits to the beat of the drum. Always an exciting and scary performance that will have you jumping off the edge of your seat, as they blow fire in all directions of which the cultural show just behind the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy has one of the country’s best performances. However having a go one self is more than an eye opener as I discovered when I decided to take a lesson in this ancient art form of healing that has extremely high rate of success. Kushan, my devil dancing fifth generation teacher who learnt the art from his early teens is now a highly accomplished at 40.

First he made me put on the sleek black tights and shirt, which hugged my body before a very long red sash of about 20 feet slowly wound up round me like a corset as I revolved on the spot, slowly turning into someone that wasn’t me. Further accouterments were attached to my body such as a large elaborate collar, two double-layered tutus, elbow silver bangles, an equally long white sash, elaborate frilly ankle garters and the wildest head of hair I’ve ever seen. I am not sure as it is fitted over my real hair that even an eighteenth century wool comber would be able to untangle the knots.

On spotting the second white sash I was reminded of mummies I’d seen in horror movies and felt a little alarmed but Kushan and his assistant carried on wrapping it around me, quite unphased by my fears and for safety sake strapping everything on extra tight. I was later to learn that he did this to prevent bits coming loose or falling off over the highly energetic dance routines he performed in the costume and I was about to learn in the tropical heat on the Negombo golden mile beach.

By now I was finding it hard to breathe and it was then that the mask was fixed to my head. It took a few attempts as the mask did not fit my face and I couldn’t see through the tiny eye slits, but it was finally on tight and I could see a distant slither of life through one of the slits but really, to all intents and purposes I was blind. The heat and compaction in all those clothes made me feel a little faint and the suggestion that I sit on a sun lounger before classes began was an extremely welcome one but involved walking like someone playing Blind Man’s Bluff, perilously close to the pool edge, which I nearly fell in. I made it, though, and sat down breathless, shuffling backwards in the seat to make full use of the recliner before I collapsed lifeless to the sound of uncorked laughter. I was later told that a traveller passing by thought I was one of the real crew, had been overheard commenting on the inappropriateness of me taking my ease in such a brazen way and not rehearsing before such an important performance. After a few minutes getting use to the outfit it was out on the sandy beach to try a few moves without toppling over from the weight of the costume and the lack of being able to see where one is going.

I later watched the real pro at work at an evening cultural show at Jetwing Sea. Kushan danced in that same suit in a way I couldn’t have danced at such high speed in a thousand years, even if naked. Not only that, he waved around flaming kerosene batons so fast and furiously, spinning like a top, that I felt the devil must surely put the idea in his head that he would set his wild hair alight along with the safety rip cord but no his incredible spirit won through. I felt for him, though, in a way no-one else could, when on leaving the stage, he tried to walk through a closed window structure instead of the door as the mask had slipped revealing the true challenges of this culturally important dance that drives away bad spirits and cures many people’s ills.

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