Viraj Wanigasekera fell in love the first time he saw live belly dancing.
There was the jumble of rich costumes and the smooth movements, but, more than that, the dancers looked like they were blissed out.
He had to try it.
“I thought, ‘OK, I feel like a freak, but I’m going to try and get good at this,’” he says.
Six years later, Wanigasekera runs a successful business training other dancers to shake and posture; and he performs professionally in restaurants and on stages in Edmonton — and outside of Alberta two or three times a year.
Last year he performed in Los Angeles, London and Turkey.
“I’ve worked really hard as a dancer taking jazz and ballet and, of course, a lot of Oriental dance from various master instructors around the world,” he says from his home in Edmonton.
“I haven’t worked this hard to get this good and then sit around in my little corner dancing for myself.”
Wanigasekera will bring his undulating hips to Whitehorse this week for two shows at Paddy’s Place, and a Saturday afternoon workshop at the Northern Lights School of Dance in Porter Creek.
He calls himself an Oriental dancer — Oriental as opposed to Occidental.
Eastern dance is highly “hip-centric,” he explains. It’s torso-oriented with lots of articulations of the shoulders, chest and the abdominal region.
It differs from western dance styles that are “limb-centric.”
It’s a lyrical, emotionally charged dance that changes with the mood of the music — varying from melancholy and tragic, to playful with high party-party moods.
Oriental dances vary from country to country.
Wanigasekera specializes in Egyptian dance in which the movements of the torso are refined to match the intricate musical rhythms.
While the Turkish style of dance employs many bigger and bolder movements and the dancers wear a lot less clothing, he explains.
“I hate to say it, but it’s very T and A, tits and ass.”
Less than one per cent of Oriental dancers are male. Wanigasekera knows of six professionals in Canada.
He has his costumes custom made because he cannot buy them off the rack.
So, as might be expected, the career path of a male belly dancer wasn’t easy. It took Wanigasekera a lot of drive and a little humility to bring himself to the top of the game.
He started performing as a student and went professional in 2003, after a few months of intense training at the Arabesque Academy in Toronto, a specialized school that offers classes in belly dance, music, culture, history, choreography and improvisation.
Then came the barriers — both socially and personally.
The challenges a male faces are daunting, says Wanigasekera.
“If you don’t have any male peers or male mentors you really hit a brick wall of legitimacy,” he says thoughtfully.
“Realistically speaking, a man who does this is a freak in the East and a freak in the West and it’s really easy to fall into a trap of needing external approval and justifying yourself.
“You assume there were no male belly dancers in the past and there’s a common misconception that the men who did this are gay.”
Most people love the show, but some aren’t as hospitable.
One time he was performing in the West Edmonton Mall with nearly 800 people watching.
“There was this fellow who actually yelled out ‘faggot’ and I couldn’t believe it,” says Wanigasekera. “He caught me for about half a second and then I went on with the performance.”
And on Valentine’s Day two years ago, he was dancing at a restaurant for an elderly couple celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary.
“The elderly gentleman went to grab the wine bottle and I thought something was fishy because his thumb was pointed down in a power grip.
“He stood up slowly, backed away from the table and bellowed at me to get away from him.
“I thought: ‘Wow, this is shocking’ and I felt sorry for him because he obviously misinterpreted what I was about.”
“I’ve never run into any dance performers who have been threatened with a foreign object before,” he adds with a laugh.
Wanigasekera grew up in Edmonton’s Sri Lankan community where dancing was a part of everyday life.
“The Sri Lankan culture is a dancing culture. So, not only do the women dance, the men dance as much or more than the women do and naturally the children are encouraged to dance.
“If you look at a lot of the prominent male Oriental dancers they’re all from cultures that have dance as a very intrinsic part of individual expression,” he says, and lists off fellow Canadian dancers that hail from countries like Columbia, Iran, Polynesia and Jamaica.
“I hope this isn’t crude, but North American men are generally rewarded for big wallets and big … uh, anatomical parts,” he says. “In other parts of the world gender stereotypes and gender expectations are a lot more flexible.”
That’s why even the North American male belly dancers are not from North America, he adds with a laugh.
Growing up, Wanigasekera studied martial arts, became a sprinter in school and then an aerobics instructor.
“But there was always an inner dancer in me that loved to dance and express through movement,” he says.
“When me and my boys would go out to the clubs on the weekends, I’d walk into the place jump on the dance floor and I wouldn’t leave.
“It was only later in life, when I quit track, that I realized that creative gap in myself.”
He sees dance as a way to connect the body and the soul.
Dancing is certainly a way to release the ego and connect to a higher power.
“I’ve had students tell me that when they come to class they forget about everything because they’re so focused on their bodies.
“It’s very therapeutic for some people — physically and emotionally and spiritually for some.”
In the future, Wanigasekera hopes to use his many talents to snag a spot in the Cirque du Soleil.
Wanigasekera will perform at Paddy’s Place on Thursday and Friday at 9 p.m. with local rockers Pegasus Wing. Tickets are $10.
On Saturday from 2 to 5 p.m. he will host introductory workshop to Egyptian belly dance at Northern Lights School of Dance in the Guild Hall in Porter Creek.