With grace and grooves | Daily News

With grace and grooves

Performing for a Sri Lanka Foundation event in LA with her mother and sister Ruwani
Performing for a Sri Lanka Foundation event in LA with her mother and sister Ruwani

Widely known for its rich art, culture and classical dance forms, South Asia has produced an abundance of talent in a variety of sectors. Aruni Botheju is a not only known for her grace, poise and hard work but also promoting classical dance forms in the international platform, captivating Western audiences and increasing their interest in exploring the roots of these forms.

Gifted in a variety of dance forms ranging from traditional Kandyan dancing to Bharatanatyam and Kathak, Aruni says her passion for the art emerged after a stage performance at her daham pasala (Sunday school) when she was around three years.

“I loved the attention I got at the event. Music is universal and creating movements or dancing steps is something I enjoyed a lot. It is a type of yoga and meditation for stress relief. During school days I would create my own items for concerts. Although I studied Kandyan dancing, I would always think outside the box. I honestly don’t remember ever being in a box or have any idea about such a thing. I would choreograph fusion items. I am able to present the best version of myself when I perform alone on stage. Then I can dance freely to the music. I never danced to impress others. I danced because I enjoyed every movement,” Aruni recalled the roots of her passion.

She started off by learning ballet and was a member of the ballet team in kindergarten. She learnt traditional Kandyan dancing from her school dancing teacher, Thilaka Wejayesinghe. She perfected Bharatanatyam from Guru Padmini Dhanayaka, and learnt Kathak at Sausiri Paya in Colombo during the early 90s. Aruni was even granted an opportunity to go to Shanthi Nikethan in India to study Kathak further.

“Kandyan and Bharatanatyam share many similarities. However, Bharatanatyam is more emotional and you need to express those feelings without words to the audience in a form of dance. Both dance styles demand a lot of discipline,” she explained.

Next came Kathak which she enjoyed for a short span. She was one of the first students who enrolled for the art form at Sausiri Paya.

“Kathak was new to Sri Lanka in 1995. My guru noted my talents and asked me to apply for Shanthi Nikethan. I followed her advice and was accepted. During this period my family decided to migrate to USA,” she said.

Aruni does not believe that it is difficult to master diverse dance genres. She simply says that one needs to ignite a fire within oneself to continue dancing.

“If you study dancing as a subject, then that is more limited to theoretical concepts. You practice to experience it. But when you dance to freely, it’s very spiritual and divine. Learning new types of dancing styles and music helps you to learn about other cultures and doing it you become part of that culture. You just have to embrace it with all your heart,” she stressed adding that she has won the Best Dancer title at school two years in a row for her flair for the art.

She had been a member of the Buddhist Ladies College dance team and had done her bit in helping her alma mater clinch awards at interschool dance competitions.

“I was invited as guest performer for Nanda Kumar Dancing Academy inauguration and they awarded me for my contribution to dancing,” Aruni said.

She soon took to drama as well because both art forms go hand in hand. She was part of Somalatha Subasinghe’s team and had work with many well-known artistes on their stage plays.

“Subasinghe was an old girl of Buddhist Ladies College. She came to one of our concerts as a Chief Guest. She loved my energy on stage and saw how comfortable I was with my moves. She spoke to my Principal, my dancing teacher and my mom and mentioned that she would like to recruit me for her new production ‘Hima Kumari’ in the lead role. I was around 14 or 15 years old then. It was a great honour. I was nervous as well. I didn’t want to do it at first but my teachers and my family convinced me to take part in this rare opportunity. I could dance but I was a terrible singer. They tried to teach me how to sing and control my vocals but it was a lost cause. Since it was a musical drama, I was terrible. I lost some practice time due to school engagements too. I lost my role as the main character but I was given some different roles in their productions. I enjoyed breathing life into them,” Aruni reflected with a smile.

Being a part of ‘Vikurthi’ was memorable. She enjoyed travelling from one city to another to perform in the play.

“I was the youngest member in the team and was so naïve. The experience taught me how much work went into putting a production together. You need dedication and commitment to carry on a production of such grand scale,” she said.

Social service work is second nature to Aruni. She started off with the Santa Barbara Domestic Violence High Tea Committee in 2014. Their goal was to raise funds to help the organization which worked to help abused women and children.

“I was a board member to both Spirit of Women Entrepreneurship organization and Women Economic Ventures, where we had many opportunities to help and encourage women and empower them to achieve their dreams. I believe whole heartedly in empowering women. I also volunteered for the Sri Lanka Foundation in 2003. I conducted the first Sri Lankan traditional dance classes to promote the culture among the Sri Lankan -American children,” she said.

Together with Direct Relief Aruni has shipped thousands of dollars worth of equipment and, Covid-19 medicine to Sri Lanka. She is currently working on a project to construct a Mobile ICU Unit to save lives.

“I am a board member for Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Santa Barbara. We focus on community development projects. As a new member of Santa Barbara Rotarian I am focusing on teen involvements in the community. I am looking forward to working with International Rotarians to create a difference,” she expressed.

For her the people and their reactions keep her going in the field. Helping the needy brings self satisfaction. She is thankful to God for providing her with strength and abilities to help others.

“Every day is a challenge. I believe in God and I believe there’s good and evil surrounding us. Good comes in many forms and evil comes to us in a form of familiarity. Being able to face those and overcoming them is a challenge we face every day,” she noted adding that challenges come in many sizes.

“Always believe in yourself. Do not let any of the voices, even your own negative thoughts, overpower you. If you do things with a good heart, you will always find a way,” she pointed out.

Aruni’s father, Ariyadasa Horanage, works as a school bus driver for Santa Barbara School district. Her mother, Manel, is a gifted dressmaker. She has two younger sisters, Waruni and Ruwani. She has two children, Ashley and Ashton, who are still schooling.

Aruni is working on finishing her Masters in Business these days.

“Believe in yourself and trust God. If you are passionate about something, start immediately before all the negative talk comes, occupies your thoughts and talks you out of it. It doesn’t matter how big or small the idea is. It’s worth taking a risk. So try it than regret it later. Also, never blame anyone else for your mistakes. Embrace it, learn from it and move on. Life goes on, no matter what. Be thankful every morning and night every day. You are here for a reason. Find that reason. We all have a purpose,” she concluded.

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