Meet the Chinese dancer who overcame cultural barriers to show her love for an Indian classical dance
Soo Mei Fei, 24, first picked up Indian Dance when she was in Secondary One and got into Bharatanatyam by chance.
It’s practice time for a group of dancers and Soo Mei Fei, 24, stands out.
It isn’t just for the way she’s moving on the dance floor gracefully. She also happens to be the only Chinese performing in an Indian classical dance.
The young children educator is a well-known dancer among the local Bharatanatyam community.
Bharatanatyam is one of the many Indian classical dance forms that originated in India, and the first generation of Indian settlers brought it over to Singapore. Over the years, it became one of the most popular Indian dance forms here.
“The rhythm and the music intrigued me the most,” Mei Fei shares, about what she enjoys the most in Bharatanatyam.
“I learned music for 10 years when I was younger and I always geared towards the music first before the dance. I prefer to listen to music, enjoy the music before I start the dance. That’s what I enjoy and I think the rhythm is extremely rich in this dance form and it gives a lot of scope to play around and explore.”
Mei Fei first picked up dancing when she was in Secondary One and when she enrolled in the National Junior College, her friends and her picked Indian Dance for her co-curricular activity (CCA) out of curiosity. During tryouts, they were taught a Bollywood dance piece and had fun, influencing their decision to pick the CCA.
But in the first practice, they found out that they would be doing classical dance instead. She recalls learning how to walk like a dancer in the first practice and, gradually, fell in love with it. It helped that she didn’t feel left out in the CCA – there were more non-Indians among the 15 students.
Still, Mei Fei had her struggles, with what she terms as an “identity crisis”.
“At the start, I always found dance quite separate from my life. After dance class, I’d go home to the culture that I was born with and when I go for classes or performances I am transported to another culture. At the start, I didn’t know how to handle that and I was always quite envious that my friends had a home to go back to where life was very constant,” she shares.
“For them, life and dance was a smooth transition where for me it felt very truncated. This made me question my abilities like being non-Indian. I would make sure that I studied the lyrics three times and yet still doubt whether I knew the meaning of the words and I would always feel like I did not know the meanings fully yet, even if I had the world and practised hard, so I always had a little bit of insecurity.”
She eventually got over her insecurities and it even turned out to be a “blessing in disguise”. She learnt to be thorough with her research and practices, especially when it came to picking up a new piece of dance.
But when Mei Fei joined Apsaras in 2016 – in a bid to pursue dance professionally – the racial difference became more obvious. She found it difficult to adapt due to her different race, but that was overcomed eventually.
“I have always felt very welcomed in the community. My friends, seniors, mentors and those in the community have always welcomed me with love and kindness and eventually, I was part of the community without feeling the racial difference,” she says.
However, sometime in 2019, life threw her another challenge. She started developing lower back pain and was stressed with school and life. Instead of resting, she went all out with her practices, as she thought she might not get a chance to dance again if the pain worsens.
Of course, it backfired. The pain got so bad that she was placed on an enforced break and had to undergo physiotherapy, although it turned out to be a blessing in disguise as it helped her to learn to let go of things.
“In dance, there is this idea, ‘no pain, no gain’, and dancers push themselves through the pain to feel like they have improved but there are better ways to go about it. It is important to be safe and to take care of ourselves while challenging ourselves to be better,” she explains.
Throughout her dance journey, she learnt many valuable lessons like letting time do its thing, trusting herself and her abilities and that making mistakes is okay.
What was once something that started out of curiosity has now become a big part of her life. And through Barathanatyam, she wants to continue exploring her identity and work on her insecurities.
She explains: “These things tend to show up in dance because it is physically, emotionally and mentally difficult. Essentially, I want to discover myself through this art form and through that see how I can make this community better and a safer place so everyone can have a safe space to discover themselves.”