Over the years, chic boutiques have moved into Joo Chiat, displacing some of the area’s KTV lounges and establishments of dubious import. The clearest sign of Joo Chiat’s gentrification, however, appears every Saturday morning. While it is still too early for business, little girls in pink leotards prance past the shops – on their way to meet Mrs. Hung Yee Skipp, to dance in the heartlands.
They gather at the community club. On the first floor, Chinese fan dancers are flapping about, while on the second, a pandan cake making class is offered. But it is on the third, past a spread of little and large shoes, where a courtly piano music reigns. Inside the ballet studio, mirrors span the walls, a piquant smell of ballet shoe leather gathers, and a copy of Dégas’s Dance Class at the Opéra hangs framed – much the same as from years ago, when I was one of Mrs. Skipp’s many students.
“Listen to the music! You need to listen to the music.”
The piano stops. “What a load of rubbish!” Mrs. Skipp declares in a crisp British accent. Her exasperation is met with giggles from the Grade One girls. They are attempting to do the classical walk exercise; a dance that requires one to walk down the room, feet pointed and turned out, changing directions twice in time to the music. “You are going to meet the Queen,” Mrs. Skipp explains, miming the actions. “You put on your tiara and a long, beautiful, embroidered skirt,” she says, more calmly now.
“Alright, let’s try that again.”
Mrs. Skipp has been teaching ballet for almost 50 years. While her students may not have gone on to become professional ballerinas, some are now dance teachers themselves. More importantly, it is her aplomb and indomitability that have made her and her counterpart, Ms. Sylvia McCully, the trusted ballet teachers for generations of parents and girls. She imparts to them the discipline needed for grace.
It was Mrs. Skipp’s own tomboy nature that made her parents send her for ballet, at the age of ten. “They wanted me to learn a bit of poise,” she says, “Not confidence. I had plenty of that.” From 1956, she trained at the Frances Poh School of Dance and the Singapore Ballet Academy, but confesses, “I was quite hopeless at it, but I still enjoyed it very much. You could say I was an ugly duckling.”
Having left school at Secondary Four, she enrolled for dance classes at the Art of Dance School, quite against her parents’ wishes for her to do a shorthand and typing course. At the school, she apprenticed for three years with Lynette Haines, a British expatriate, helping with her parents’ kindergarten in the morning and attending dance classes in the afternoon.
Encouraged by Haines, Skipp undertook her Elementary and Intermediate in ballet, the then basic qualifications to teach. In 1972, she started teaching – first at the Art of Dance School, then at the British Association, with growing classes and no assistant.
By then, her life was already so entwined with work that it was a student’s parent who introduced her to one Malcolm Skipp, an Englishman who had come to Singapore to work on an oil rig. “He was such a gentleman,” she recounts. “One month after we met, I went over to his place for dinner. As soon as he opened the door, I knew I was going to marry him.”
Once they did, the teaching didn’t stop. Even while she was pregnant with her son, she continued to teach 80 students in a rented studio in a colonial house. They moved to Northamptonshire in the UK in 1978, but returned after becoming sick of the English weather. In 1985, she set up the Dance Profile Ballet School at East Coast Recreation Centre.
“It was very good to have my own school,” she says, “but financially it was probably the worst decision of my life.” After nine and a half years, the school folded when rents increased almost six-fold.
Skipp moved half of her students to Joo Chiat Community Club, while the other half moved to YMCA Orchard, then to Tanglin Community Club. It was at these loftier destinations that Skipp met with disagreements with the managements. “I don’t mind admitting I was very aggressive,” she says, “I am a very demanding person, but whatever I demand is for my girls.”
With all her students now at Joo Chiat, she admits that “a lot of people have asked, ‘Oh why Joo Chiat?’ As far as I’m concerned, it doesn't matter where we are, as long as we do good work. We’re instilling a bit of the finer things for the residents.” It is also because of this location that Skipp is able to keep fees affordable, a practice she has maintained over the years – currently, her Grade One class costs $95 for 12 sessions.
“In the old days, you had to have money to learn ballet. It’s changed,” Skipp says, having seen the wave of expatriate children give way to more local ones. She is adamant that ballet remains an accessible craft, so much so that she organises large-scale ballet shows every two to four years, raising funds to help her students further their dance education overseas, and to improve the school’s facilities.
At the same time, she feels that with Singapore's “bleak” dance scene, her duty is not “to churn out dancers.” “My job is to teach students to be the good audience of tomorrow. To learn to appreciate the joy of dance and music. If I had a daughter, I would never want her to be dancer – too much hard work, too much of a hard life. It’s not a viable career option here, not yet. Maybe in 20 years.”
For now, the class is drawing to an end. In ballet, every lesson ends with students doing the révérence – a series of port de bras culminating in a curtsey as a sign of respect to the pianist for the music and the teacher for the instruction. It's an exercise steeped in tradition, a celebration and show of respect for the art of ballet itself.
Mrs. Skipp herself plans to retire next year and hand the school over to younger hands. As she leads her brood down the room, the change is palpable. “Much better, but still needs a lot of work!” she pronounces. Watching her, she remains sharp and precise, able to spot the slightest mistake in a room full of girls whose names she all knows. And it's still a thrill to hear, when your work has met with her approval, her exclamations of “good” and “beautiful”.
For the Grade One girls, there are other rewards. After the révérence, they line up in neat, composed rows to collect their sweets. “It’s a Skipp tradition,” her assistant informs me.
Words Leong Hui Ran
Images Tan Ngiap Heng