In our previous DANCE || CULTURE: CHINESE DANCE, PART 1, we explored the long, rich and turbulent history of Chinese Dance. In this article, we speak to Ms Jenny Neo of Singapore Chinese Dance Theatre (SCDT) and Sim Xin Ni, Chinese Dance student at NAFA School of Young Talents, to find out more!
Being the daughter of Madam Lim Moi Kim, one of the pioneers of Chinese Dance in Singapore, one would think that Ms Jenny Neo would be trained professionally as a Chinese dancer from a young age. However, that was not the case as she began her dance journey by learning ballet at the tender age of 8.
It was after the racial riots and Singapore was just beginning to establish its cultural roots. Although Chinese Dance has shown its face in the likes of Chinese Opera or Wa Yang as we better know it locally, back then, this art has not yet found a proper local instructor nor the audience to impart it to.
Instead, it was the very first Chingay in 1973 that introduced Chinese Dance to the public. By inviting down troupes from China, the first Chingay Parade showcased the various Chinese dance styles such as the Stilt Dance, and this, in turn, triggered the interest of the audience in Chinese Dance, alongside other ethnic dances.
Madam Lim was inspired pursue it professionally by a visiting instructor from China. After studying the art, she eventually took it upon herself to coach her daughter. Soon after, Madam Lim founded the Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan Arts and Cultural Dance Troupe in 1989, which eventually became SCDT.
“Back then, most performances were in-house. It was very rare that we would be able to showcase to the public.” This proved true for most dance troupes in the past as there was no internet then and the only way of promotion was through word-of-mouth. Soon the government increased its investment in the arts this garnered public attention.
From television showcases in the 90s to online platforms such as YouTube, the media exposure has changed drastically, and most troupes were forced to adapt to the shifting preferences or fade out.
Fortunately, along with the changes, came opportunities.
The media exposure also allowed SCDT to collaborate with Esplanade and Marina Bay to promote the Chinese Dance culture to Singaporeans. The exposure from the Dance Talent Development Programme (DTDP) under the government scheme also allowed Chinese Dance to flourish in Singapore. Now, more students are taking up Chinese Dance lessons and exams.
But even with this increased audience, it is hard to ignore how the current younger generation still prefers the ‘cooler’ and more ‘popular’ genres of Hip Hop and Contemporary Dance. Sim Xin Ni, 18, Chinese Dance student at NAFA School of Young Talents, agrees: “There was another modern dance/hip-hop CCA in my Secondary School and I realised it was way more popular than Chinese Dance.” Many even made fun of her choice to stick with Chinese Dance. Even then, she decided to stick with it because of the beauty and grace that she saw in the art form.
This shift in interest could also be tracked through the Singapore Youth Festival (SYF), which saw lesser distinctions given out in recent years due to declining participation in the Chinese Dance category.
SOCIAL MEDIA AND LOCALISATION
Aside from the opportunities presented, more students are now able to discover more about the various styles of Chinese Dance online. Ms Neo remarked: “I encourage my students to watch more and gain more knowledge, the exposure there has turned into a tool for education.”
Xin Ni commented: “On Instagram, I follow many artists. It’s easy to get inspired there, and the videos shared actually allowed us to learn more about the dances!”
So here comes the question: With all these exposures, were there any significant localisation of the art form? According to Ms Neo, it’s not really the case. “I would wish for Singapore to have their own unique style.” In fact, she herself had been thinking about it and believes it is not impossible to achieve. But of course, there was a condition.
Pointing out that more students now are taking choreography into their own hands, Ms Neo commented: “It’s a good thing! But something is missing.” In Chinese Dance, they focus mainly on the roundness or the softness of the movement. In practice, when you perform the art, you have to have a centre in which the movement emits from and returns to. However, many students still lack the experience to implement it in their choreographies.
But it isn’t without hope. As students such like Xin Ni believes that with passion there will be a bright future for future Chinese Dance choreographers. Ms Neo too, agrees that being able to choreograph is the first step to being able to achieve the desired end result.
Despite the increase in students and interest in the art form, many students lacked the discipline of the yesteryears. “In the past, we used to dance on hard mosaic floors, now the children have dance mats” was one example raised by Ms Neo on the biggest difference in dancers then and now. “If we asked the children to dance on the mosaic floors like we did back then, the children will surely complain.”
So does Xin Ni feel the same? “Not really, although we get more facilities now, I believe that we stay committed because if we slack off, we wouldn’t be able to continue for long because of the amount of hard work we had to put in. If they didn’t want to commit, they would not have spent that much time cultivating it.”
From China to Singapore, Chinese Dance has found a stronghold in Singapore as one of our cultural pillars. Regardless of the trials and tribulations it has to face, Chinese Dance will no doubt prevail through the likes of passionate teachers and students.
Missed our previous articles on BALLET? Fear not 🙂