Cultural exchange in Sri Lanka

Art History & Visual Culture Dance Fellowships & Student Research
August 4, 2016

Professor of Art History and Visual Culture, Joanna Grabski, and Professor of Dance, Sandra Mathern, led an on-site learning team of students Mailys Dagan ’19, Meg Odell ’19, and Hannah Zwemer ’17 to Sri Lanka in the summer of 2016.

This two-week intensive living-learning experience consisted of several components. Students and faculty were immersed in Sri Lankan expressive culture and studied artistic, historical, religious and commercial sites in the cities of Colombo, Kelaniya, Nuwara Eliya, Mirissa and Bandarawela.

“I was struck by the notions and instances of culture: why certain things are they way they are — from the ways in which Sri Lankans drive, to the beautifully choreographed movements and costume of traditional Kandyan dance,” said Zwemer.

In addition to learning about Colombo’s rich urban environment, including its famed temples and markets, they visited the Hill Country; climbed Sigiriya, a World Heritage Site; explored the ancient Dambulla Cave Temples; traveled in the Tea Country; and visited the Pedro Tea Plantation, the site of the earliest tea manufacture in the country.

Along with on-site learning, students assisted and participated in contemporary dance workshops at the University of Visual and Performing Arts, the University of Colombo Sri Palee Campus, Chitrasena Dance School, Mesh Dance Academy and at a rural school in Bandarawela, where they taught a classroom of three dozen eleven-year-old girls.

“We arrived and it was difficult not to feel like celebrities. All the students and teachers were looking at us with such awe, it was obvious that we weren’t a common sight,” said Dagan. “Every smile I gave, I received one back; the littlest things can show white privilege.”

“I could see the positive effects that self-expression and performing arts had on students,” said Odell. “These modern/postmodern classes that we taught also demonstrated how students can benefit from immersing themselves in an outside culture they know little about.”

Students also studied the traditional Sri Lankan Kandyan dance with one of the most prominent companies in Colombo. They attended

Mathern’s artist talk at the University of Visual and Performing Arts and Grabski’s film screening and discussion at the International Centre for Ethnic Studies in collaboration with the Global Shapers Hub-Colombo.

For their final projects, students developed proposals for site-based performative works, drawing from their experience of Sri Lanka’s cultural, political, sacred/religious, economic and visual/spatial landscapes. These are presented on our blog site:, along with daily posts documenting and reflecting on experiences and activities.

This travel seminar builds on Mathern’s summer 2015 research project with students, Dance as Intercultural Exchange and Language. The summer 2016 international travel seminar took place in coordination with Denison University’s Off-Campus Study Program.

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