“Chrishanthi Nagendra has poured her heart and soul into moulding young ballet dancers, a journey that has taken her from Sri Lanka to London, and finally, Australia. She told her story to UOWTV reporter, Victoria Ellis.
“Dancing is life!” Chrishanthi Nagendra says. The intensity of her eyes, big and brown, make a strong point.
“Dancing is living!” she continues. This time her hands come up and she motions as she speaks. Years of training make her supple fingers fall effortlessly into position so every gesture is a performance.
“If you wanted rain, you would dance to have rain. If the rain came you would dance for joy. That’s how dancing started – you lived and you danced,” she says.
Yet Chrishanthi never wanted to be a ballerina, lucky, because at barely five feet she would be instantly rejected from any ballet company.
Chrishanthi has spent her life doing something she finds much more fulfilling – teaching.
Born in Colombo, Sri Lanka, in 1952, Chrishanthi announced she wanted to be a ballet teacher at the age of 14. The education department in Sri Lanka were doing a survey to find out what school children wanted to be when they grew up.
The other students wanted to be doctors, engineers, lawyers, and accountants. By the time it came to Chrishanthi, she thought, ‘My goodness! There’ll be so many of all these people that I won’t have any work’. It was then she decided on teaching ballet.
Now a life member of the Royal Academy of Dance, Chrishanthi has taught at many high profile dance schools, working with the likes of Lorraine Norton, Barbara Chambers, Tanya Pearson and Valerie Lloyd. In over 40 years of dance teaching, she’s taught more ballerinas to plié and arabesque than there are stitches in a tutu.
Rachel Pringle, a friend and colleague, greatly admires Chrishanthi’s teaching ability and has gained a lot in the year they have been working together.
“It’s awakening because she has so much knowledge, there’s always something to learn each class,” she says. An experienced dancer herself, Rachel knows that hard work as well as talent has helped Chrishanthi to successfully run her own dance school and travel the world in her role as a Royal Academy of Dance examiner.
At 66-years-old, Chrishanthi’s hair is neatly off her face and a scarf is draped over posture perfect shoulders. She radiates warmth and confidence. In a cosy corner of a Sutherland cafe, she shares amusing stories of her time studying in London.
“My goodness me, when I got off the plane I wanted to get back home straight away!” she says.
In 1969, at 17-years-old, Chrishanthi was the only Asian student in her class. With phone calls a luxury and mail unreliable due to postal strikes, she felt alone. Despite her tiny frame, Chrishanthi is tough, as strong and unwavering in mind as she is balancing on the tips of her toes. Her parents were spending a lot of money on her and she was resolute to make the most of the opportunity.
Determined to make friends, Chrishanthi joined her peers as they walked through the park during their lunch break. It was a fine summer day and the city was savouring the warmth and light in a way that only places as grey and rainy as London can. The sun soaked into the pale arms of the British dancers as they strode past manicured lawns. They floated, heads held high on elongated dancing necks, enjoying the weather and chatting.
Behind them, puffing and head bobbing as she struggled to keep up, was Chrishanthi. Arms pumping furiously and stretching her shorter legs, she worked twice as hard to maintain the pace. When the others spoke in front of her, their words would fly from their mouths and trickle away with the breeze, so Chrishanthi would break into a trot to catch the conversation. She rhythmically beats the knuckles of her three middle fingers on the table to illustrate the situation.
“I was constantly galloping and running behind them,” she says. “Their stride was so much bigger than mine.”
She giggles at the memory of a younger, more timid Chrishanthi, chasing giant, long limbed dancers, trying to hear what they were saying. For her efforts though, she made firm life-long friends.
As time went on, she came to realise London was fantastic. “Of course, you’re as poor as a church mouse so you couldn’t do anything,” she says. She lived a meagre lifestyle, walking past bus stops right outside her hostel door to get a cheaper fare. On the odd occasion when she was out to lunch she would order the cheapest sandwich. “It was a cream cheese and cucumber!” she says.
In the final year of her teaching diploma at the London College of Dance and Drama, Chrishanthi accepted a teaching position at a ballet school in Sydney, Australia. After an interlude in Sri Lanka while she was waiting for her Australian visa, she left in 1975 to begin her teaching career.
Working between three dance schools and travelling two hours each way, Chrishanthi’s passion for dance and love of teaching only strengthened.
Chrishanthi feels strongly about the power of ballet to inspire creativity and reflect life. Her eyes are alive when she talks about dance. She says ballet is more than just good technique, it’s about feeling and telling the story.
Rachel has witnessed Chrishanthi spark students’ imaginations to create the most beautiful stories. “It’s just like magic,” says Rachel. “They improve within a few short minutes. She has a strong belief in the ability of students to do their best. The students really absorb that and reflect it in their dancing.”
Chrishanthi feels people have a right to reach for their dreams. “I’m rather old fashioned,” she confides. “I just feel if nature has given you something to do, embrace that and do it.” Though she disagrees with taking children out of school to dance full time. “How can you dance Shakespeare and Milton and Homer? How can you dance those beautiful pieces if your brain hasn’t even understood them?” she says.
Chrishanthi believes the most important thing for a dancer to learn is honesty and passion. She believes if you can work hard and be truthful to yourself, you will feel the return. “Not when you want it, but along the line you will be rewarded,” she says. She describes this as a cyclic wave and recounts her own rewarding experiences when students come back to say thank you for how much they’ve learnt.
There is something though that frustrates Chrishanthi – divas of the dance world.
“It’s not easy with people who are me-me-me. You have to teach a whole class,” she says. “There are other beautiful girls desperately wanting to learn. I go for the underdog. I try to be my best and just teach everyone equally, but my heart always goes for the underdog. Always.”
Chrishanthi explains that the less talented, harder working girls get a better mark than the naturally talented ones, because they listen in class and soak up every last word of advice.
At the beginning of 1979, Chrishanthi moved from Sydney back to Sri Lanka to have her first child and in 1980 set up her own dance school, The Ballet Centre.
It wasn’t hard to start the school, with just one advertisement in the local paper describing Chrishanthi’s experience, there were queues waiting.
She was content, but in 1985, the Sri Lankan war began, and for the sake of their children, she and her husband left their home and moved back to Australia.
“We had to start life from scratch. Absolute scratch,” she says.
Thirty-three years later, Chrishanthi is happy to live in Sydney to be close to her granddaughter, occasionally teaching and travelling.
In not just Australia, but every country she has taught, Chrishanthi has motivated the next generation of ballet dancers. With grace, dignity and a contagious passion, she makes every toe point perfect, every straight back straighter and every light step lighter.
However, more importantly to Chrishanthi, she teaches young dancers ballet as a conduit for story and self-expression. She welcomes students into the enchanted world of dance, stirring feeling and provoking thought, leaving the dancer’s life enriched beyond the classroom.
“I just want to feel that I have given something to society here in Australia,” she says. “That gives me a lot of happiness.”