In the narrow hallway of the Singapore Ballet Academy (SBA), dancers are streaming into and out of classes. Standing in their ballet slippers on the vintage blue-tiled floor, young girls in matching leotards giggle as they compare stretching techniques while waiting to enter one of the three dance studios.
At the end of the hall, an older dancer does a perfect split while munching away on her lunch, throwing an occasional glance at an ongoing class in which girls – and two boys – no older than eight years old practise to the rhythm of the music being thumped out on a grand piano.
“Do you feel like a princess?” the male teacher asks one child as the music stops, his stern gaze met with a giggle from the pupil whose less-than-perfect posture has drawn the question. The class resumes and the man watches them like a hawk, his arms akimbo.
Mr Han Kee Juan asks this a lot during his classes at the Singapore Ballet Academy, where he has been principal since 2016. He tells me that ballet, after all, originated as a court dance in the palace and hence one must feel the elegance of being a princess or prince while dancing.
SBA, which celebrates its 60th anniversary this year, making it the oldest ballet school in Singapore, was established in 1958 as a merger of the Frances School of Dancing and the Malaya School of Ballet.
Thousands of students have gone through its doors, including Mr Han, who joined the school at 15.
It was the beginning of an illustrious career, which included both dancing and teaching stints in companies across Australia, Canada and the US. His last post before he returned in 2016 to Singapore was director of the Washington Ballet.
Now Mr Han, 61, has come full circle, and as the academy’s principal, he gets the chance to shape the next generation of dancers at the school, which currently has more than 500 students.
SBA’s students follow the Royal Academy of Dance syllabus, progressing from Grade 1 to 5, followed by intermediate, foundation, and advanced classes. Post-SBA, students who wish to dance full-time may go on to attend academies and dance schools overseas, though some return to dance with the Singapore Dance Theatre.
“I nitpick everything. It needs to be perfect, though perfection is a nebulous word,” Mr Han tells me when I quiz him about his famed rigour. With his voice almost always raised above the music, and usually in sync with it, he sees the tiniest flaw during practice at his four weekly youth group classes.
These classes, which are more intense, are extra sessions for existing students, who go through auditions before being selected.
The extra training was started by Mr Han to help dancers solidify their foundation and enhance their training.
Mr Han muses that ballet training in Singapore cannot be compared with that at dance schools in other parts of the world.
“If you want to be trained as a dancer, even if you come every day in Singapore, it’s not enough because you only work for an hour and a half,” he said. “You can’t compare it with schools overseas, where they do four to five hours a day, six days a week.”
Nonetheless, heritage-rich SBA prides itself on promoting ballet as a beautiful art form and wants to provide training to the highest standard for aspiring students.
As Mr Han puts it: “If a child is talented, we help them.”
The youth groups are heavily subsidised, with only a nominal fee charged. The same goes for students who require private coaching for competitions. Financial aid is offered on a case-by-case basis for the normal classes.
“I’m particularly pleased that the SBA is in the hands of our alumnus,” says SBA director Goh Soo Khim, who counts Mr Han as a former student. “I still remember him as a skinny boy enthusiastic about ballet.”
She hopes the next generation of SBA’s ballet dancers will continue to enjoy the art form. “There is something about the magic of dance – if they persevere and work hard, they will always experience the joy and the fulfilment that it can bring to their life.”