Deanna Jayasuriya

Deanna Jayasuriya is a legend in her own right. Responsible for opening what is to date Sri Lanka’s longest standing ballet school inaugurated over 50 years ago, she has dedicated her life to passing on the art to numerous generations. I met with her, and her equally talented and beautiful daughters, Natalie and Natasha, to get a glimpse of the glamourous life of a dancer.

By Thushanthi Ponweera

Deanna, or Aunty Deanna as she is fondly known, is quick to brush to off any references to glamour. In fact, this is the first interview she’s agreed to in over 30 years. “I never went behind a life of glamour, darling. That wasn’t for me. I have nothing against those who do, in fact I admire them. But I prefer to stay away from the spotlight.” Her daughters confirm this, saying that it took a lot of convincing for their mother to agree to be photographed. “It’s hard to find pictures of her even as a young performer”, says Natalie. “We keep telling her that she should write a memoir about her life. But she keeps saying it’s not necessary”, she adds, much to her mother’s amusement. What follows is a re-telling of a story worthy enough to be elaborated in a book.

Deanna Abeydeera, a past pupil of St.Bridgets Convent, was born to a Eurasian mother and a Sri Lankan father. “He was very loving, but also very strict. We lived a humble life, and it was up to my mother to make sure our expenses stayed within our means. But as a lover of dancing herself, she longed to see me learn it”, says Deanna, her voice full of warmth. Her mother would scrimp and save for ballet lessons for little Deanna, who was enrolled at the tender age of two with Colombo’s best dancing teacher at the time, Yvonne Bradley. It was soon discovered that Deanna, like her mother, had natural talent, and under her teacher’s watchful eye, she bloomed. “It was a luxury to be able to attend ballet lessons, but when my father saw how much I loved to dance, he allowed it.”

Deanna went on to learn multiple forms of dance, including tap dancing and Spanish dancing. During her late teens, Deanna moved to London, where she furthered her art under a new teacher. With more than a decade spent in the role of student, Deanna returned to Sri Lanka, fresh with ambition and plans to embark on a career as a ballet teacher. “I wasn’t successful”, she laughs, without any qualms. “It only made me realise that being a dancer, and teaching dance were two very different things. I needed to learn all over again.” This is exactly what she did, going back to London to earn her qualifications to teach under the tutelage of Ruth French, at the Royal Academy of Dance. “I wanted to learn from the best, and the RAD was the best. It gave me the confidence I needed to try again. My life at the time was spent between work, church and ballet”, smiles Deanna, stating that her faith has been one of the strongest guiding forces in her life.

It was while she was teaching in London, that she met her future husband, Gamini Jayasuriya, the one who would help her take her aspirations to the next level. He would soon become her husband in a union that lasted 47 years till his death three years ago. “He was the love of my life. None of this would have been possible if it wasn’t for him”, Deanna pauses, her throat constricting with a grief that is still raw. “We returned to Sri Lanka in 1980, with our two small daughters, Natalie and Natasha. Even as a young mom, I still continued teaching and I had no plans of stopping. It wasn’t something I could ever give up, and I’m glad that Gamini understood this and supported me.” She commenced classes in Colombo at the Jaycee’s Secretariat on Gregory’s Road, although she winces at the memory of its cement floors, which were ‘the worst for dancing’. “There was simply no alternative at the time, so I had to settle. But even though I had a decent following, I wasn’t happy. How were they to become the best dancers they could be, if the learning environment wasn’t the right one?”, she says, her commitment to seeing her students succeed evident. Seeing her distress, her husband, in a perfect expression of love, custom built a dance studio near their home in Longden Place, and the Deanna School of Dance was re-born. “It was made to international standards, with the beautiful wooden flooring and all the facilities”, Deanna says her face aglow. “My dream had come true, thanks to my husband. I was finally at peace to expand the school.” Teachers were trained and multiple classes were conducted nearly every day to meet with the growing demand. She was also able to re-introduce Royal Academy of Dance exams, allowing our local students to be examined at the highest standard. She is proud to have trained five of her students as fully qualified teachers.

I ask Natalie and Natasha what it was like growing up in this environment. “If we weren’t dancing at the studio, we were dancing at home, practicing and performing. It was never too much though. Especially me, I loved being centerstage!”, Natalie has a sparkle in her eye as she reminisces. She had so much promise as a young dancer that she was even sent to the Elmhurst Ballet School in the UK at the age of 11, leaving behind her family in Sri Lanka. “This was the path you needed to take if you want to become a serious dancer. But it was so rigorous, and I was homesick. I came back after two years.” It didn’t stop her from dancing though, and she completed her training with her mother. She doesn’t perform anymore, and instead channels her passion into choreographing the school’s concerts as its Vice Principal, in addition to being a businesswoman.

“I was the shy one!”, laughs Natasha, the younger of the two sisters. “I loved to dance, but given the choice, I’d happily hide backstage watching and helping everyone else. I guess I naturally gravitated towards the nurturing fulfillment of teaching, like my mother.” Natasha is also a gold standard Ballroom and Latin American dancer, and following in her mother’s footsteps, received her qualification to teach ballet from the RAD, UK.  She took over the role of Principal of the school in 2015.

Both sisters are trained in multiple dance forms, including modern, Spanish and tap dance. Deanna adds, “They are both wonderful dancers. But I always made sure they weren’t automatically given leads just because they were my daughters.” She is also content to take a backseat and watch her daughters taking over the running of the school. “It was a nice feeling seeing them love it as much as I did, and although we never pressured them to, they were happy to take over when the time was right. I can’t stay away though, and you will see me overlooking lessons and making sure that the teachers and students are free to approach me for any guidance!”

The school currently has seven teachers and over 600 hundred students. Royal Academy of Dance (UK) examinations are held every year and concerts are held once in two years. Although this year was an exception due to the pandemic putting a halt on live classes, the concerts are an eagerly awaited event, and an opportunity for all students to shine. Deanna, Natasha and Natalie also speak of how their guiding force has always been the joy and talent of their students, and not profit. “The business aspect is always secondary to the experience our children get when they come for classes. We offer many scholarships to any of our current students if the financial commitment becomes too much for their parents.”

Are you a strict teacher, I ask Natasha and, like her mother, she replies with an emphatic ‘No’. “We’ve watched how Mama raised us, and that laid the foundation for us as teachers. All of my mother’s students adore her, and visit her even now, years after they stopped learning from her.”

She says that the key to instilling a love for dance is to encourage, and building a relationship. “We use a lot of positive reinforcement, which helps them build confidence. We also maintain a good rapport with our students, which comes easily because we genuinely care about their wellbeing, even if it extends beyond the hour they spend with us. We want them to grow up to be well rounded adults, not just amazing dancers,” says Natasha.

Before we part, I ask Deanna if she has any words of wisdom to share. Although she has decades of dancing and teaching behind her, Deanna admits to never taking it for granted. “I love to learn, and I always look at ways I can learn and improve my knowledge, especially when it comes to dancing. There is so much to learn, whatever age you are. You just need to be open to it. The day you stop learning something new is the day you fail,” she says enthusiastically.

Originally appeared in the Pulse magazine, print edition, October 2020.

Image credit: Pulse