Everybody Dance Now!

Published on 26 September 2017

In recent years, dance has been drawing wider audiences in Singapore, even attracting more first-time learners. Are you ready to step up?

By Pamela Ho

Photo: @elevephotography
Photo: @kng.shots
DYNAMIC DUO As full-time dancers, choreographers and instructors, Kayte Willis and Alif Aircho (right) spread the love of hip-hip dance and culture through workshops in Singapore and around the world. (Photo: Freedom Dance Studio (Malaysia))

Ballet and contemporary dance have, for a long time, dominated the Singaporean dance scene. Think ‘dance’ and chances are the Singapore Dance Theatre (SDT), T.H.E. Dance Company, and Frontier Danceland come to mind. Inaccessibility – partly, perhaps, because of the sheer physical and mental discipline associated with dance – also comes to mind. So much so that many perceive dance as an art form that’s difficult to pick up to do for fun, or even to appreciate without prior knowledge.

Jeffrey Tan, a home-grown dancer, choreographer and founder of Jeffrey Dance Academy, is one of the rare few who started ballet at the ripe age of 21. He managed to rise to principal dancer with the SDT and believes that with commitment, determination and passion, picking up dance at a later age is not impossible. However, to be a serious classical dancer grounded in the proper foundation and technique, “it’s best to start early, especially for girls. I’d advise the same for boys, though I think it’s still OK for boys to start around age 12.”

But for certain dance forms like hip-hop, people are picking up their moves even in their teens and adulthood. This issue’s cover girl Kayte Willis’s first encounter with hip-hop occurred at the now-defunct Youth Park, when she was a student at LASALLE College of the Arts. “Back in 2000, we didn’t have legit dance studios or proper training for hip-hop dancers. We danced in the streets. Everything we did, we learnt from watching music videos and each other.”

Largely self-taught, Willis’s dance crew was fortunate to secure gigs with Hard Rock Café, and the Boom Boom Room, dancing for stand-up comedian, Kumar. On how she managed to become a professional dancer in a whole new genre, Willis explains, “Urban dance is all about self-expression. It’s all about how you best express a piece of music. Of course, there are specific techniques you need to master, but there’s a certain creative freedom in expression, and it allows you to mix styles and genres.”

And now, as an instructor, she makes it a point to explain hip-hop’s roots to new students. “I wouldn’t call it a ‘dance’ because it’s a whole culture. It’s music, it’s breakdancing, it’s graffiti. It has its own vibes, its own fashion. To understand it, you have to understand all the elements that influence it; and kids find that cool.”


Photo: @kng.shots
SQUARE DANCE Super 24, a national showcase competition in Singapore, draws audiences in the thousands. The rules: 24 dancers performing a 90-second routine in an 8m x 8m square, with four-sided judging. (Photo: O School)

Alif Aircho, Willis’s dance partner (who also graces this month’s cover), says his secondary school was one of the first in Singapore in 2005 to incorporate hip-hop as a co-curricular activity (CCA) after his dance crew won an overseas competition. “Today, almost every school in Singapore has a dance CCA, or enrichment programme taught by professional dancers. It’s a good thing for us dance instructors because it generates job opportunities.”

Willis agrees. “There are so many studios in Singapore now. Because kids have more access to resources and are better trained, they have a better chance of making dance a career. There are even job opportunities overseas! Competition is stiffer, but that isn’t a bad thing for the industry.”

Building on arts education through LASALLE, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, and School of the Arts, the spread of dance through Singapore’s mainstream schools and private commercial dance schools has definitely cast the net wider. As Kenny Low, founder and managing director of O School, a dance studio and performing arts centre, puts it, “Traditionally, schools invest in contemporary and cultural dance clubs to showcase at the Singapore Youth Festival, but there are schools that have gone beyond these forms and invested in proper training for urban dance clubs. The youth are now doing moves with proper technique and execution. And we’re seeing visible results.”


SWING OUT, SISTER There’s no better platform to Lindy Hop than when a swing or blues band is playing live. The Barber Shop (The Arts House) has netted new learners for these instructors from Timbre Music Academy. (Photo: Lindy Live at House of Timbre)

As a key player on the local dance scene, O School has created high-profile events such as Super 24 (a dance showcase competition) and Love for Dance (L4D) Varsity Camp to showcase talents, build the community, and develop audiences. They also set up Six.5, an urban dance company, to create and produce full-length works.

The efforts are paying dividends. Low says that ten years ago, “we needed international crews as anchor acts for The Big Groove [Asia’s premier annual urban dance festival] to draw an audience of 3,000. Recently, we had the national finals for Super 24 and 4,000 tickets were snapped up a week prior to the event. Requests for tickets even started popping up on Carousell! And these are all local acts.”

Low adds that this rising interest can be attributed to several factors, of which one is visibility through social media. “Through YouTube, the latest popular dance forms from Los Angeles and Korea spread much faster. Next would be ease of adaptation: can the moves be easily replicated? Some require much more commitment to master, while a ‘dap’ [dance move] is relatively easy to execute.”


Photo: Lim Sing Yuen
HOOKED ON CLASSICK! Urban dance company, Six.5, performing Classick, an entertaining and accessible work that fuses two unlikely art forms – urban dance and classical music. (Photo: O School)

Another dance form that is gaining popularity in Singapore is the Lindy Hop. Jitterbugs Swingapore, Jazz Inc., and Timbre Music Academy are just some of the schools offering classes for adult beginners. “There are schools and dance communities in all major Asian cities, from Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok, Hong Kong and Seoul,” says Lim Sing Yuen, a Lindy Hop instructor at Timbre Music Academy. “In Singapore, there are Lindy Hop gatherings almost every day of the week!”

Interest in Lindy Hop probably rose alongside the hipster retro trend, fuelled by regular performances by swing and blues bands like Raw Earth. Lim says these events “helped drive interest amongst our dancers to teach, perform, and run more events. When people see us dance, they usually think ‘That looks fun!’”

It helps that Lindy Hop has very low barriers to entry. “The hardest step is the step onto the dance floor!” Lim says with a chuckle. “Lindy Hop was the social dance of the 1930s and 40s. Regular folk danced it. In fact, when we teach, we assume students have no dance background or knowledge of swing music; and we get them dancing within 20 minutes!”


Deciding to pick up a new dance form is also about feeling comfortable within a community and enjoying the group culture. “Dance is primarily social,” says Low. “Beyond the mastering of techniques, we dance to communicate and to express ourselves within a community. There is often a desire to connect and belong.”

As such, dance experiences that facilitate this desire are very attractive for young people. Genres such as Old School Funk, B-Boy, street/funk jazz, K-Pop, hip-hop and urban dance, all have had fairly strong and consistent appeal at O School.

In fact, O School’s enrolment has shown a lowering in the average age of students signing up. Not only are they starting earlier, there’s also a fairly significant number of male students – something more traditional dance forms like ballet and contemporary dance still struggle with.


Photo: Little Shao
Photo: LASALLE College of the Arts
RISE AND SHINE Home Boys Only (above), champions in both the Battle of the Year Crew and Free Style Session Crew categories, is just one of the local dance crews given a platform to shine at the annual Singapore Street Festival. (Photo: Singapore Street Festival)

Annie Pek says the local dance scene has changed tremendously since she founded the Singapore Street Festival in 2002. “We’re seeing more derivative street-style forms such as Waacking, Electric Boogie, Funk, Tetris, Boogaloo, Snaking, Ticking and Krumping coming into the scene. Whatever captures the interest of our youth will make its way onto the stage of our festival,” she says. “What’s exciting is that dancers and choreographers here are using these platforms to interact, exchange ideas, build partnerships and be inspired.”

Another long-standing festival on the Singapore dance scene is the da:ns festival, organised by The Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay. Into its 12th edition this year, from 20 to 29 October, the festival will present seven ticketed shows, 75 workshops and master-classes, and over 70 free performances and activities (see sidebar for highlights).

“We are particularly proud to present three female choreographers in their early 30s — Dada Masilo, Rocio Molina and Eisa Jocson — and their profound works which push the boundaries of dance in its form and content,” says Faith Tan, Head of Dance & Theatre, The Esplanade Co Ltd. “They have created a style and philosophy of performance-making of their own and, in doing so, they continue to expand and reinvigorate the possibilities of dance.”

Through its programming, the da:ns festival hopes to inspire audiences to make watching dance a part of their lives, as well as to enable them to discover their own unique connection to dance.

To date, the Esplanade has supported the creation of over 25 works, as well as initiated artist development programmes. To encourage the public to discover the joy of movement, it has initiated Footwork, an annual series of pre-festival workshops that are conducted by professional instructors and that run from June to September. Offering a choice of 30 dance styles, the workshops are designed for adults and youths with little or no dance experience.


WHO SAYS YOU CAN’T? This month’s Got to Move, a nationwide dance movement now into its third edition, is set to get everyone on their feet and moving to music at taster classes held during Car-Free Sunday SG. (Photo: National Arts Council)

Perhaps the biggest movement dedicated to exposing the public to dance is Got to Move (GTM). Organised by the National Arts Council (NAC), the event has, since its inception in 2015, sought to make dance more accessible by offering a wide variety of programmes for different audiences. This third edition, to be held from 13 to 29 October, looks set to build on this.

According to Elaine Ng, the NAC’s Senior Director (Performing Arts), we can expect a new format from this edition onwards. “We will include more touch points throughout the year, so that people have more opportunities to engage and sustain their interest in dance,” she reveals. “This month, the public can look forward to more innovative and interactive programmes, including the first GTM Dance-Walk and a fun social media challenge.”

For the first time, GTM Spotlight — a dance carnival — will be held in conjunction with Car-Free Sunday SG, a popular event held in the Civic District and Central Business District on the last Sunday of every month. Drawing a regular crowd of joggers, cyclists and families, Car-Free Sunday SG will see dance events scattered throughout the Civic District this month, with the Esplanade Park as the main GTM stage.

The GTM Dance-Walk, meanwhile, is a 30-minute walk around the Singapore Recreation Club, along Connaught Drive, and ending at Esplanade Park. The flag-off happens at the steps of the National Gallery Singapore (City Hall wing), where there will be a specially-commissioned dance performance by O School’s Six.5 and Frontier Danceland.

If your feet are itching to move, check out the dance taster classes along Connaught Drive. Suitable for all ages and levels of experience, these classes offer a variety of dance genres to try out, so come dressed in comfortable clothes and shoes. In fact, the local dance community is expected to be out in full force, so if you’re keen to chat with them, make your way to the GTM Dance Marketplace, where around 80 booths will be set up by dance companies, studios, academies, and more.

During the festival period, a programme called GTM Islandwide will also stage free dance activities all over Singapore. These ground-up initiatives – selected from an open call – include performances, classes, competitions, flea markets and more. Highlights include the SDT’s Ballet Highlights, a special showcase of the company’s repertoire, while Frontier Danceland offers dance workshops, contact improvisation, and a demonstration of its contemporary dance repertoire.

The ITE Centre for Music and The Arts will hold a dance photography exhibition, capturing the journey of dancers in preparation for a production; while Legacy Dance Co. will be organising the Little Red Dot Dance Challenge, a workshop that not only allows participants to pick up basic hip-hop and urban dance skills, but also to perform with others in a mini-showcase.

And if you’re too shy to dance in public, why not try it in the privacy of your home? Popular YouTuber, Trevmonki, will be uploading Take a Dance (Chance), a series of urban dance concept videos and online tutorial classes to encourage people to pick up dance anywhere, anytime.

If it’s not already clear, it is getting harder to make the excuse that dance is inaccessible. Perhaps it’s true that the hardest step is that first step onto the dance floor. But if you do take it, perhaps you, too, will be swept off your feet?

Keep updated on Got to Move 2017 at www.nac.gov.sg/GotToMoveSG.


Da:ns Festival 2017 Highlights

Photo: John Hogg

Swan Lake by Dada Masilo
(South Africa)
Esplanade Theatre, 20 & 21 Oct, 8pm

South African dancer and choreographer Dada Masilo turns this ballet classic on its head – in both style and story. Anchored by Tchaikovsky’s music, Masilo’s work fuses ballet with contemporary and earthy African dance, complete with stomping feet, swaying hips and energetic hoots!

Photo: Giannina Urmeneta Ottiker

Macho Dancer and Corponomy by Eisa Jocson
Esplanade Theatre Studio, 27 & 28 Oct, 8pm

Inspired by the seductive dance form performed by young men in Manila nightclubs, ballet and pole dancer Eisa Jocson incorporated their slow gyrations, body undulations and bicep flexing to create an iconic gender-bending work that has toured internationally. (Advisory 16)

Photo: Rose Eichenbaum

L.A. Dance Project by Benjamin Millepied
Esplanade Theatre, 24 & 25 Oct, 8pm

Experience four diverse works performed by the best dancers from America and led by Benjamin Millepied, former artistic director of the Paris Opera Ballet, principal dancer of the New York City Ballet, and the choreographer behind the Oscar-winning film, Black Swan.

Photo: Gregory Batardon

Condanced Histories by Neopost Foofwa
Esplanade Recital Studio, 26 Oct, 7.30pm; and 27 Oct, 3pm and 7.30pm
(for school bookings only)

Learn about the history of dance through a one-man show featuring former Stuttgart ballet dancer, Neopost Foofwa, who, armed with just a suitcase of costumes, will introduce and perform key techniques of famous choreographers from the past century.


Fun & Fancy Free

What’s Your Move? 
The Edge (Esplanade Waterfront), 20-22 Oct, various times

From salsa to K-Pop to Lindy Hop, pick up nifty dance moves from professional instructors on stage and under the stars. Lovers of street dance, especially, won’t want to miss Sixteen da:ns Challenge (21 Oct).

everybody da:ns now 
Esplanade Festival Corner, 20-29 Oct, 4pm to midnight

Let your hair down in your own private dance party at the festival’s most Instagrammable space – a mini da:ns box! Just step in, wait for the music to start, and let the beat take over!

Shall We Dance? 
Various venues, 20-22 Oct and 27-29 Oct, 6.15pm and 7.15pm

Five-minute dance lessons? You just need to look out for the roving team of professional dancers from Jazz Inc. around the Esplanade. Choose from a selection of dance genres!

For details and full programme, visit www.esplanade.com.

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