Ever wondered what it would be like to try out a cultural dance belonging to another person's race?
For this National Day special, we interviewed Soo Mei Fei, an aspiring Indian classical dancer and a multidisciplinary artist that aims to bridge the gap between the different cultures through the Arts.
At the age of 23, Soo Mei Fei made history as she became the first female Singaporean Chinese to perform a full-fledged Bharatanatyam recital on stage at the Goodman Arts Centre Black Box early this year.
What is Bharatanatyam?
Let us break it down! In Tamil, Bha means emotion (Bhava), Ra means music (Raaga), Ta means rhythm (Taal) and Natyam means dance. Thus, Bharatanatyam is the dance that encompasses music, rhythm and expression.
Bharatanatyam is the oldest classical dance form originating from Tamil Nadu, India and is the foundation of Indian Dance here in Singapore. It is known for its detailed hand movements shown through sign language and disciplined footwork consisting of a half squat. Just like many forms of art, Bharatanatyam typically includes storytelling, in this case, through dance.
While in school, Mei Fei had always looked to explore a variety of performing arts CCA (Co-Curricular Activity) from choir to music and finally, dance. However, it was only during her time in National Junior College where she subsequently fell in love with Bharatanatyam after attending her school's Indian Dance CCA tryouts. After graduating at the age of 17, her passion grew immensely and she had went on to pursue Bharatanatyam alongside with other forms of Indian classical dance under Apsaras Dance Academy. Today, she has become an embodiment of Singapore’s multicultural identity through this unconventional path she took in mastering this cultural Art form.
Growing up as an introvert herself, Mei Fei admits in using this dance form to help build her self-confidence as an individual. Due to the nature of Bharatanatyam that requires performers to be expressive, she was forced out of her comfort zone when she had to master techniques such as 'abhinaya' which refers to the art of expression through facial features, body movements, speech and many others. Nonetheless, it was a hurdle worth overcoming as she is now able to express her emotions and thoughts more effectively. Mei Fei explains that she also sees this as a pivotal skill for young children. As a multidisciplinary artist herself, she aims to create a safe space for young children to grow in confidence through any Art form.
(Image credit: Lijesh Photography)
Thank you Mei Fei for joining me. For a start, what was your journey to Bharatanatyam like?
I would say that there was definitely a steep learning curve at the beginning; however as I continued diving into it, every step I took towards mastering the dance form became very fulfilling. Growing up, I would try out different types of performing arts CCA and classes outside of school from choir to music and finally, dance. When I first joined Indian Dance during my time in National Junior College, many of us were also non-dancers and that shaped a big part of how I viewed the Indian Dance scene. What I really enjoyed was the sense of community within the CCA itself; we were all very close and supportive to the point where we would use our free time just to get together and help each other coordinate our dance steps. It was things like these that made my Bharatanatyam journey a smooth and memorable one.
How did you discover your love for Bharatanatyam?
When I was in Secondary 4, we participated in the Singapore Youth Festival (SYF) where my dance instructor had let us perform a semi-classical dance piece. I spent a lot of time watching Bharatanatyam dance videos on Youtube and reading books in the library. Whenever there were such performances at Esplanade or at any independent studios, I would attend them. The more I kept myself in the loop with the happenings of this particular dance scene, the more I started to fall in love with its beauty. There was never a point in my life where I felt the need to give up Bharatanatyam; this entire process of learning and immersing myself deeper into the culture felt natural to me.
What is it about this Indian Classical dance that intrigued you?
I enjoyed the music that I had to learn and dance to in Bharatanatyam. I can’t really describe what it is about Carnatic music that I love but it was out of curiosity that drove me to research how Carnatic music was used in dance performances. It was on Youtube where I discovered many dance renditions of all these songs, which led me to watching and finding out more about this particular Indian Classical dance. Two years later, we had another SYF where we performed another rhythmically challenging dance. Somehow, I became very fond of it and that led me to really dive deep into the world of Bharatanatyam. During our CCA training, we were taught a set of basic Indian Dance techniques prior to our choreographed dance. However, I was not satisfied with only mastering the basic steps and techniques (that were part of the choreography) and took it upon myself to research and learn more about Bharatanatyam. Besides just practising these new steps at home, I would often spend my time at the Esplanade library to find out more about Bharatanatyam and the other Indian Classical dance forms. What kept me going in my Bharatanatyam journey was the fact that there were so many things in the world of Indian Classical Dance that I did not know existed, and that never failed to excite me.
What are some of the difficulties you faced in terms of picking up the dance elements/techniques in Bharatanatyam?
In our dance form there are two different aspects that we had to master: ‘nritta’ which refers to dance techniques such as stamping of the feet, hand gesture, and position of the legs and feet whereas ‘abhinaya’ refers to the art of expression through facial features, body movements, speech and many others. Another integral part of Bharatanatyam is having a solid ‘aramandi’ which is a half-sitting posture where the dancer’s knees are bent, heels are joined together and the toes of both legs pointed to the opposite direction. My injury only came because I was not engaging with the right muscles. I was so focused on getting the perfect technique that my body tensed up which resulted in the inability to perform a piece smoothly. As a dancer, sometimes we forget that it is not about replicating another dancer’s moves or techniques. Everyone’s body is built differently and we need to figure out what works for us. Besides getting the perfect techniques and steps, the Bharatanatyam journey is also a journey of understanding yourself and your body. There will always be certain limitations in what your body can do and it varies with each individual. I strongly believe that in any art form, it is all about finding your own style to communicate your individual narrative.
I understand that you are currently a part-time dancer, are you planning to pursue this passion full time? What is your long-term goal in this career?
Of course, it is my dream to pursue Dance and Arts full time however, at this point in time my full time job is a priority. Since I did my Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Arts from Lasalle, my approach to the Arts is quite multidisciplinary; my interest ranges from drawing/painting to making music to using your body movements to communicate and express emotions. On top of that, I enjoy working with children and I see myself working with them in a multidisciplinary approach towards the Arts. I have always thought about how the Arts can be used as an educational tool to build confidence and resilience in children as well as how it could be used as therapy for both children and adults. Essentially, my life goal besides pursuing my personal dance career is to find a way to create a safe space for the community to practise Arts in the ways that I have mentioned.
What is your take on embracing other cultures when it comes to pursuing your passion, especially in the creative industry?
I have always felt that the creative industry as a whole, definitely has the potential in uniting people from all walks of life. For me, barriers are social constructs which are formed by humans. We fail to see that there are many things in life that are universal and we tend to focus on our differences, instead of finding common grounds. When we start experiencing and embracing things outside of our comfort zone (be it another person’s culture or language), it helps us see things in a different light. As a creative, once you have crossed that threshold, you would never want to go back.
Do you think young Singaporeans have what it takes to embrace multiculturalism to the extent that you have? What more can be done?
In order to embrace such a concept, it starts off with having unconditional love, care and kindness for one another. I was lucky enough in my Bharatanatyam journey to be surrounded by people who were supportive and welcoming which made it easy for me embrace multiculturalism and to pursue my passion. I am who I am today because everyone was so generous with their love and support in wanting to see me achieve the things I was passionate about. The thing about giving someone or a group of people an abundance of love and kindness is that it keeps on spreading from people to people and I think that is what Singaporeans can work on.
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About Art Wonders
Art Wonders is a free quarterly e-newsletter and art education resources that was first launched in May 2020. It aims to be an important art education resource in Singapore, featuring insightful articles, interviews, featured collaborations and art education printables. Our main audience include children, parents and art educators and we currently have more than 400 subscribers.
Iffah believes in two-way communication of ideas when it comes to creative work. Growing up, the subject of Art/Design was taught passively; where there was little room for experimentation and self-exploration. Today, she aims to become the bridge that brings Art/Design to everyone, especially the young generation, to grow into critical and creative thinkers in order to fuel their passions.