September is a month of reflection for us here at Dance.Write.Repeat. Why we began, how we began, where do we begin? To begin our self-reflective month, we chat with Mr Jeffrey Tan on his own journey through dance, and where his journey will lead in the future!
From being a recruit struggling to learn how to dance to the current Director of Jeffrey Dance Academy, Mr Jeffrey Tan’s dance journey has been nothing short of amazing, spanning grief, perseverance, hope and the beauty of mentorship.
Having choreographed for many performances, including our very own National Day Parade, he has risen to be one of Singapore’s most respected art practitioners in recent decades.
Check out one of his many works here:
Talk me through your dance journey. Who/What inspired you to begin dance?
“I started dancing while I was serving my National Service (NS). I was approached by one of my platoon mates who was interested in auditioning for the SAF Music and Drama Company (MDC). He wanted me to only accompany him to the audition but eventually convinced me to audition. I went ahead with the audition, and actually ended up failing all segments of the audition; singing, dancing, acting.
However, due to a shortage of guys within MDC, I was still offered a place simply just because they needed more guys. It was during my time in MDC where I first met Mr Anthony Then, who eventually became my mentor in dance.
He was a guest ballet teacher who would come and give us weekly classes. He actually saw that I had really nice feet, which was a major plus point for ballet dancers, and asked if I wanted to train professionally. At that time I was really clueless about it, but he was willing to give me the scholarship to train at Singapore Ballet Academy (SBA) on the nights that I had free time away from NS.
In the end, I accepted the offer. I admit, I got a big shock upon stepping into SBA for my first ballet class there, as the class was full of girls and I was the only guy there. Mr Anthony Then continued training me and one day, London Studio Centre came down to Singapore for auditions, and he was the one who pushed me to audition for it.
In the end, I was chosen to go to London to train on a full scholarship. However, I was still relatively new to dance, and could not take on the tough training in London. I gave up after a year in London and came back to Singapore, much to the disappointment of Mr Anthony Then.
He then gave me an ultimatum, to try being an apprentice with Singapore Dance Theatre (SDT) for two years and if I still wanted to stop dancing, he would not get in my way. I got through the two years and ended up staying with SDT, and continued my training under Mr Anthony Then as well as Mdm Goh Soo Khim.
They both pushed me to get better and take part in competitions as well. It was later in 1995 that I was offered the role of a Principal in SDT. Sadly, on the first night as a newly promoted Principal, Mr Anthony Then passed away and I suddenly felt alone. I did not have a mentor there to guide me, push me on and watch over me anymore.
It was then that I promised him and myself that I would continue working hard, and that has led me to where I am today.”
What kept you going?
“Mr Anthony Then’s passing was a huge trigger point for me that kept reminding me to never give up. It was his belief in me that kept me going.”
Any difficulties that you experienced dancing? And how did you overcome it?
“Having started ballet really late at the age of 21, there is a lot of technical demands and I had to play catch up. I had to put in a lot of time and effort to better myself, as compared to the people around me who have had many more years of training. It was the discipline and training instilled in me by my mentor that gave me the necessary grit to overcome this.”
I believe that there were many people who didn’t believe you can go professional due to your late start. Were there any discouraging things that were said to you? If so, what were the biggest naysayers of your passion, and what was your response/reaction to it?
“I must say, during my starting period in Singapore, people around me thought that I was doing it for fun, so not many people made discouraging remarks.
But when I was in London, there is discrimination by the students there who look down on Asian students. But I’m quite a strong headed personality, so the more people look down on me, I will work harder to prove them wrong.”
What does dance mean to you?
“Dance allows me to express a lot of my inner emotions and feelings through movement. When I’m dancing, I am able to put aside any negativity that I have, and truly live in that moment.”
What influenced your decision to follow dance as a career?
“There wasn’t much of an influence. But the passion that I have in this art form just kept me going.”
Having been in the industry for a while now, what changes did you see in the dance scene then and now?
“There are better facilities available for everybody now, which makes training a lot more efficient. With things like the internet and social media, it also allows students now to be exposed to a lot more, such as things that are happening overseas. These are knowledge that I could never have access to during my time as a student.
However, like in every matter, there are always two sides to it. I believe social media does expose students to more things that are happening around the world, but I don’t deny certain negative effects it presents. In social media, students often follow what the trends are without giving a second thought on the truth behind the context. If one doesn’t manage it well, the negative effects definitely will sink in.”
What are your thoughts on the local ballet scene (in relation to male ballet dancers)?
“There are more guys who are willing to take up ballet now. One example is the all-male adult ballet class that my academy holds, where there are more and more guys writing in to inquire or sign up. It is a very encouraging sign to see more guys doing ballet.”
I understand that you used to be the former Principal of SBA. Now that you’ve started your own dance academy, are there any different challenges you face from being the principal of the oldest ballet academy in Singapore and now your own? Do elaborate!
“Being the Principal of SBA was different, because the school has already been established for so many decades, and I just had to run the academy and make sure things run smoothly. There was a lot of support from the board as well. Whereas, having my own academy now places a lot more responsibility on myself. I have to constantly worry about monetary factors such as paying for the rental, or paying my staffs, and worry about issues about how to make my academy stand out from the rest.”
How do you think dance will change in the future (for Singapore)?
“I cannot predict the future of the dance scene in Singapore. However, I feel that if people in the dance scene are able to open up and continue supporting one another, then we will definitely see a bright future ahead for Singapore’s dance scene.
Generally, young dancers that I know are supportive towards one another, when they compete in competitions or in performances, you can see the genuineness in them when they cheer and encourage one another. These are something I hope can last when they grow older.”
Please define what Community means to you.
“It means working together in an open environment. Where people are willing to help and share knowledge with one another instead of having to doubt one another.”
What are your thoughts on our current dance community?
“People are very protective of their own organisations, and they are not very willing to open up.
But I believe it can! Which is what I am trying to do now, by connecting with various organisations, convincing them to work together for the better of the scene in Singapore.”
Any wise words that you keep in your heart when the going gets tough?
“Life is too short to worry. Think of those who are less fortunate than you. And always try to be as positive as possible and look at things from a different perspective.”
To all dancers that intend to take up dance as a career, any words of advice for them?
“Be clear with what you are aiming for. Have the passion, determination and the heart to keep going, but do not forget the most fundamental thing to continue training. Be willing to open up and learn from as many people as possible.”
Finally, any events in the upcoming months that we will be able to catch you at?
“Jeffrey Dance Academy will be having its second annual production on the 8th of December at The Drama Center, a full-length ballet – Alice In Wonderland, As well as the third installment of En Pointe International Convention Dance Workshops on the following week from 11th to 15th December.”
You can find more details about his upcoming projects here!