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What’s the ideal age to learn ballet?

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Last year, they were accepted into a beginner’s class. This week, they will hold their first public performance. ARTERI talks to Royal Durian Academy’s teacher and students about the hard work, discipline and joy that is ballet.  

“How many toes do you have on that foot?”
“Five, teacher.”
“And are you standing on all five?”
“No, teacher.”

Even by ballet teacher standards, Miss Nell is strict. Her Monday morning class starts at 9am and anyone who arrives even one minute late finds herself locked out in the hallway. There’s a long list of guidelines for all students, including what to wear in class and how to fix their hair. Feedback is brutally honest. Distractions are not allowed.

The results she gets would be enough to make any kiasu parent run to sign up their kids. Except that Miss Nell’s students are way past the age where their parents can tell them what to do. Instead, they sign themselves up.

The Royal Durian Academy - Ballet for all ages and body types

The Royal Durian Academy – Ballet for all ages and body types

I meet with teacher and five of her students in a coffee shop. The youngest could be in her twenties. Beyond that, ages and body types range wildly; experience, height and weight all over the spectrum. Which means each one of them is a perfect candidate for Miss Nell’s Royal Durian Academy.

So, you’re coming on Monday, right?

I hear three different versions of how the class got started. From what I can garner, the credit (blame?) goes to singer Janet Lee, who went on social media to ask if anyone knew of someone who could teach her ballet.

The bait was taken by theatre director and producer, Nell Ng. If Janet could find three friends who would commit to show every week, Nell would teach the class.

“I thought four people would be hard to find, right?” Wrong. News spread like a catchy tune. Many were interested, while others had interest thrust upon them.

“I just ‘liked’ her posting,” says Emily Man. She received an immediate response from Nell: “So, you’re coming on Monday, right?” Emily, an executive producer for film and television, did and has continued to do so for over a year.

In spite of a schedule unfriendly to most working adults (Monday morning, remember?), at one time. In spite of a schedule difficult for most working adults, the class at one time had more than 20 students, both men and women.

"I thought four people would be hard to find"

“I thought four people would be hard to find”

Some had to leave but the original class kept a steady dozen students. By popular demand, Nell later started a second class.


What possessed them?

“I want to do a show where I can appear to be dancing,” laughs Janet. And also, “to look pretty.”

Cassie Wong, who illustrated the posters for the group’s upcoming performance, took seven years of ballet as a girl. She stopped, as most girls do when they reach their late-teens, but “I kept my shoes in my closet… I always thought I’d wear them again.” Sixteen years later, she is.

There are nods around the table when Emily says, “I think a lot of girls dream of becoming a ballerina,” and Miss Nell has proved that it’s never too late to make the dream come true.

"A lot of girls dream about becoming a ballerina"

“A lot of girls dream about becoming a ballerina”

A safe space

Nell understands what she’s asking of her students by making them dress in leotards and contort into unfamiliar shapes, all in front of floor to ceiling mirrors. She knows that high standards and constructive criticism are essential to improvement. She also understands that these are all things that can make a person feel vulnerable, and she is firm about creating a space where her dancers feel safe.

One of Nell’s gifts, says Elvira, is that she understands what teaching method works with each student. She uses imagery a lot… and laughter. When something makes you laugh you remember it forever.”

Rather telling them what they’re doing wrong, Nell finds it more effective to make them go through mental checklist of all the things they know they should be doing for that position or movement. “When Miss Nell asks, ‘what is that?’ I quickly start thinking of everything I’m doing, from head to toe.” Emily says.

Students also help by observing each other. “If I don’t tell my classmates what they’re doing wrong, they’ll keep doing it wrong. So I tell them,” says Emily. She adds: “And by watching, we also learn.”

"By watching, we also learn."

“By watching, we also learn.”

Of course, Nell watches them too. It’s a mistake, says Elvira, to “think Miss Nell can’t see you because she’s turned around.”

A pride of dancers

All the dancers speak of ballet with reverence, of what they have achieved with awe. No one more so than actor Bella Rahim who leans forward when she talks about the impact that the class has had on her.

“When we learned to twirl – that’s keeping your eyes focused on a point when you turn – we video’d it in slow motion,” she says, “You could see everything about our posture and the turns and how our skirts floated slowly outwards…. It was wonderful.”

It’s become much more than a class and all six interviewees throw out words looking for the right one. It’s a close-knit group. It’s a family. It’s a cult (laughter). Then one of them says “It’s a community” and the word is repeated around the circle with great satisfaction. Yes, we’re a community.

When Bella left for a time to study acting under Philippe Gaulier in Paris, “I missed the class so much.” Every week, her classmates sent videos with instructions and demonstrations of what they had learned so she wouldn’t fall behind.

What it takes

Nell gets calls all the time from people who say: “I’m interested but I’m too old, I’m not flexible, I have health problems, I’m overweight.” Rather than excuses not to dance, those are all excellent reasons to start right away.

In fact, what makes you eligible for Miss Nell’s class has nothing to do with health, age or physical attributes. The prerequisites are all about attitude.

“You need to have commitment,” says Nell, repeating a word I’ve heard over and over in this conversation. “You need to show up and work hard. You have to be passionate about it.”

It boils down to respect. Respect for ballet, for your instructor and for one another. This is what has created a safe space. This is what has created, in little over one year, ballet dancers.

Come see Miss Nell's dancers in action

Come see Miss Nell’s dancers in action

See for yourself what a difference a year makes; get your tickets to the Royal Durian Academy’s upcoming concert (details in the poster above… pay attention!) and don’t forget to follow them on instagram and facebook @theroyaldurianacademy.

And to fulfill your lifelong wish to become a ballet dancer, talk to Miss Nell: 016-2171060

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Amy De Kanter
Amy De Kanter

Former Chief Editor, frequent contributor and enthusiastic audience member, Amy is thrilled to have a job that lets her do three of the things she loves most.