Dance is rewarding, uplifting, and gratifying. It’s also unforgiving, all-consuming, and demanding.
It is like no other art form – because its language is movement, and it speaks through the human body.
For dance in a professional context, this body is required to be highly attuned – taut yet fluid, weightless yet grounded, spontaneous yet prepared. To maintain this, the daily routine of class is essential.
For between an hour and an hour and a half, dancers concentrate on their bodies meeting the demands of the respective techniques. Yes it’s about an unattainable perfection (an undeniable driving force that both frustrates and motivates), but more than that, it’s about working within and maximising the body’s capabilities, cultivating a complete awareness of every muscle.
I think I wanted to be professional dancer when I was about 14. And now having graduated from full-time dance school, I seem to be further away from it than before. (Nope, not at “brink” stage last time I checked.)
The reality of the ‘big bad world’ means a lot of artists (I’m writing here in the Singapore context, but I’m sure this applies elsewhere too) don’t work full-time. They have to make ends meet via other means, sometimes in unrelated fields. Perhaps I’ve been so sheltered, and have had these sweet ideals firmly take root in thought bubbles that live in my mind. But I firmly believe that dance, unlike all other art forms, needs to be practised full-time.
There’s a saying in ballet which goes:
Miss class for one day, you notice; miss class for two days, your colleagues notice; miss class for three days, your audience notices.
There is almost a sacredness ascribed to class, which underscores the rest of a dancer’s practice.
While I currently keep up with classes, do requisite crunches/push-ups/planks and keep my mind active by attending performances and writing about them, I can’t help it that the rest of my day after the thrill and/or centred introspection of morning class falls into a lull. I could be improvising on my bedroom floor I suppose…
I usually love my solitude. People who know me will know that. But I’ve found in these months, that an artist, yes even (and perhaps all the more) one who isn’t getting work, needs a community of like-minded peers. I miss the energy, camaraderie and support I shared with my wonderful and unbelievably talented classmates at school. We were guinea pigs for each others’ choreographic experiments, shared in the joy and pain, and served as each others’ inspirations for three formative years of our lives.
Upon reading an article in the Straits Times about a month ago bemoaning the “poor dance ecology” in Singapore, I was indignant at the one-sided view of the piece. Interviews with four artistic directors of contemporary dance companies (one of which has since had its swan song performances) revealed their difficulties – a lack of public support, the Singaporean mindset which does not regard the arts as a legitimate job, and “a dearth of talented and passionate young dancers who want to enter the scene professionally”.
As an individual eager to break into the industry, the challenges of these organisations are a far cry from mine. The individual is always smaller, less significant than the establishment. Especially when the individual in question is a young, fresh green nobody like me.
I beg to differ about the lack of local talent coming through mentioned in the article – more dancers are receiving training abroad, and batches of students have graduated from tertiary institutions, Lasalle and NAFA… What’s happened to them? I’ve heard stories of students who pursue dance at these institutions as a second career, after having completed a university degree elsewhere. That (backward) leap of faith surely is an indication of the passion of these dancers.
But, only a small minority of Lasalle and NAFA graduates are now working in local dance companies. Many are dance teachers. Some are languishing in the ranks of ‘second companies’ (self-professed youth wings of contemporary dance companies – the on-trend must-have, to “nurture young talent”, dancers are unpaid of course) – with no clear prospect of moving up/graduating into the main company. Some probably aren’t even in the industry anymore. But I wonder how many of these aspired to have a career on stage, and never got the chance. The professional dance industry is small, yet it does not seem to be opening its arms to welcome more in.
Sure, the reality is harsh. And the money is never enough. But what is stopping the flow of new, young, exciting artists entering the industry?
Even though the Government has increased arts funding, these monies are in vain if they are not accompanied by a shift not just in societal mindset, but also in the mindsets of these long-standing directors, some of whom have been in business for close to 20 years. Young, untried artists need support, platforms (ABBA says it best) – as NMP Janice Koh put it in Parliament, for work possibly “which [has] as yet no market, but [shows] excellent potential”. While these dance companies may commend the “Government’s push to put arts in the spotlight”, they cannot stay applauding in their seats, but should rise up and be on the frontline of the movement.
On this, my birthday, I am reminded that a dancer, unlike any other artist, has a shelf life. And not a very long one.
Of course, I’ll be dancing till I’m old and grey (so long as my body doesn’t give out), because I love it. But as a professional, this surely – I mean, this has to be – my time. And I’m not about to let it slip through my fingers (Not my words, ABBA’s). I’m lucky to have parents who (mostly) gently remind me of real-world pressures and wearily listen to iterations of my lofty ambitions.
Now who else will listen? I’ve got lots to say, and even more to give.