Shawn Tay, 60, and Gladys Tay, 53, are Singapore’s “royal couple” of dancesport, also known as competitive ballroom dancing. They began training together in the early 1980s, and have been each other’s partners in dance, business and life ever since. They took a break from their hectic schedules to speak with us about their ascent to the top of the dancesport world, and where life has taken them since.

Even if you didn’t know a thing about them, you’d recognise Shawn and Gladys as dancers by sight alone. When we first met them at their newly-renovated studio in Bras Basah Complex, the first thing that struck us was their bearing, no doubt a product of their 30-plus years as champion ballroom dancers: Gladys, immaculately groomed; Shawn, looking polished in a business suit; both of them with impeccable posture.

With their glamour, eminence and formidable list of accomplishments, it’s difficult to imagine them as the novice dancers they once were – indeed, Gladys joked that they’d long since “deleted the memory”.

Shawn and Gladys on the competition floor, circa the 1980s. Many of their competition outfits were custom-made to complement their physiques and routines. Photo courtesy of Shawn and Gladys Tay

Their story begins with Gladys’ parents, who ran one of Singapore’s first ballroom dance schools, the Steven and Violet Dance Studio, in the 1970s and 80s. Gladys had begun training under them from a very early age, but Shawn, by contrast, was 20 and a young officer in the Singapore Armed Forces when he started dancing. In a bid to hold his own at army social events, he began looking for dance schools to enrol in.

After a few false starts, Shawn found himself pacing up and down outside Gladys’ parents’ studio. When he finally steeled himself and went in, he came face-to-face with a roomful of students in their 30s and 40s. “Ballroom dancing wasn’t that popular at the time,” said Gladys, laughing. “It was mainly done by older people for leisure.”

Inspired by John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, Shawn began with a short disco dancing course, but, once that was over, found himself ready for something more structured and technically demanding. One fateful afternoon, he came across Gladys, then 14, sitting in the studio, and asked her to partner him for ballroom dance classes.

They were soon inseparable, but had to keep their relationship under wraps for the first few years (“I was supposed to be studying!” quipped Gladys). During that time, they experimented with other dance styles like ballet and jazz, Shawn focusing on the former while Gladys kept up her ballroom training.

The cat eventually had to be let out of the bag in 1982, when they began training for their first competition together, and had to convince Gladys’ parents to let them be partners.  “Shawn wanted to convince my father that he was serious about me, and he worked very, very hard to impress him!” said Gladys, laughing.

That first competition, the Singapore Open Ballroom Dance Competition, pitted them against seasoned professional dancers from around Southeast Asia. “It was ridiculous. I had my job in the army and after two or three years of ballet, I barely remembered anything about ballroom [dancing], but we only had six months to prepare!” said Shawn.

“It was really, really rigorous. I remember I’d be so tired after army training, out in the field for maybe two or three days with no sleep. I would go straight to the basement carpark and catch a few hours’ sleep and then go upstairs to practise with Gladys.”

Marrying proper ballroom technique with inspiration from their broad-based dance training, the couple brought a breath of fresh air to the dance floor – and won the competition. “We were so determined,” said Gladys. “When we won, the pros were like, who are these new kids on the block?”

When they won the same competition again the following year, they were invited to participate in a competition in Hong Kong, an event that Shawn described as a “turning point” for them.

“We thought we were the best…until we got there and [realised] it was a whole new ball game. They had the Danish champion and three British champions there, one of whom was the world champion at the time. It was like an atomic bomb compared to a hand grenade. I remember how when we were dancing our first round, we could hear them passing behind us. The speed at which they were turning was crazy! And there we were, just….” said Shawn, shaking his head and grinning.

That wake-up call, however, led them to their next step: training in the United Kingdom, widely considered to be the ballroom dance capital of the world at the time. With Gladys’ parents’ blessing, they sold all their belongings to raise funds for the trip, packed their bags, and set off for London in 1984. This marked the beginning of a nine-year cycle of rotating between the UK and Singapore in three-month stints.

It was a difficult time for the young couple at first. Short on cash, they shuttled between dingy bed-and-breakfasts and got cheated into buying a broken-down car. When they got homesick, they shared a single box of noodles from the Chinese take-away, and during the day, trained with three world champions who were based in the city.

In 1985, they became the first Asian couple to win the coveted Doris Lavelle Challenge Trophy and the Felbridge Open Amateur Latin American Championships – a seismic feat that propelled them to stardom in the ballroom dance world. “This was unheard of. Most people didn’t even know anything about Singapore! That first win set us on a different road altogether,” said Shawn.

Their win got them a call from Dance News, the respected industry publication and go-to source for information about the world of ballroom dance. They wanted to send the couple on a dance tour around Europe, competing in different cities. Their first stop: a whirlwind 14-day stint in what was then Yugoslavia.

“We’ve been on so many luxurious trips since then but frankly, this was our favourite trip. It was unforgettable,” said Gladys.

First, they had to contend with the 28-hour drive from London to Yugoslavia along with another couple and a driver, stopping only for fuel and bathroom breaks. Along the way, the exhausted driver fell asleep while driving down a mountain path, only waking up when Shawn slapped him in a panic. Then they were stopped by border guards who hadn’t heard of Singapore, and held them for an hour while they searched for the country on a map.

On their first night in Yugoslavia, they competed in a town with a nudist colony (“They were free and easy during the day, but dressed up so smartly for the dancing!” giggled Gladys). The next night, they danced in an old and leaky amphitheatre, whose stage was riddled with puddles due to a recent storm. All the competitors slipped and crashed to the floor – Shawn and Gladys included.

“But you fall down, you get up, you fall down, you get up,” said Shawn. And so it was, both literally and metaphorically: both of them credited the hardships they endured during this trip with fuelling their drive and resilience.

“Every time we finished, I’d get back in the car with my dress still on, sleep with my makeup on, get up the next day and do it all over again. It was completely exhausting,” said Gladys.

“It felt like we’d been through 14 years of training in those 14 days. And once we got back to London, we didn’t have stage fright anymore,” said Shawn.

After their success in Yugoslavia, the rest of their time in Europe was fully booked with competitions and events every week. Their months in Singapore were just as busy, packed with all sorts of events to promote ballroom dancing in Singapore.

Due to the large amount of press coverage they had received for their wins, the couple was invited to perform on local television channels. The then-Social Development Unit (SDU) enlisted them to run a ballroom dance programme (where some of their current students’ parents met). In 1985, they organised the inaugural Lion City Dancesport Championship, and started their dance school, the Shawn and Gladys Dance Academy, in 1986. Throughout this time, they continued to spend six months a year training and competing in the UK.

A 1988 clipping from The New Paper, following their win at the First Superstar Cup International Ballroom Dancing Championships in Taiwan. They went on to win the Malaysia Championship in 1989 and take the top spot in Latin at the Asia Pacific International Ballroom Championships in 1990. Photo courtesy of Shawn and Gladys Tay

In 1992, they were invited to choreograph an item for the National Day Parade – the first time ballroom dancing was featured in the event – for 150 couples to perform.  “How big an honour was that? Of course we had to do it. We had to stop everything else we were doing to focus on that,” said Gladys. “That broke our momentum a bit.”

To honour their commitment, they chose not to travel to the UK that year – the first time they had done so in eight years. This marked the beginning of their transition away from their careers as professional dancers, and into the next phase of their lives as adjudicators, coaches and parents.

The birth of their first child, Isabelle, in 1994, prompted them to re-assess their priorities.   Although they had planned to keep training and competing after starting a family, the couple quickly realised that they couldn’t bear to spend months away from their daughter training abroad.

In addition, around the same time, Gladys was invited by the World Dancesport Federation (WDSF) to judge a world championship in Germany. However, the opportunity came with a dilemma: she could either accept the invitation to adjudicate, or continue her career as a professional dancer, but not both. With that, they decided to hang up their dancing shoes and retire from competing in 1994.

“The first two to three years were tough,” said Shawn. “Especially when we went to competitions and thought to ourselves, ‘We could beat them all!” When you dance, you do it because you enjoy the challenge. That competitiveness never goes away.”

However, they knew in their hearts that it was the right decision. They had won 24 international titles in 10 years, and according to their teacher, had gone as far as they could possibly go, short of relocating permanently to the UK to train there. With all the achievements and commitments in Singapore they had worked so hard for – their school, TV work, SDU classes, competitions, and family – “we knew we just couldn’t move back to the UK and live off fish fingers again,” said Gladys.

Retirement, however, didn’t translate into slowing down. Instead, they threw their energies into their growing family (their second child, Grant, was born in 2002),  building their school, and organising competitions locally. In 1997, Shawn was invited by the WDSF to become the Advisory Director for Asia, setting him on track for his current work in the organisation and development of dancesport. He continued to rise through the WDSF’s ranks and was appointed its President in June 2018, a role he will formally assume in November of that same year.

Meanwhile, Gladys became sought-after for coaching and consulting by countries in the region, from Vietnam to China. In 2008, she presided as Chief Jurist on the judging panel of that year’s Eurovision Dance Contest, a pan-European dance competition, and choreographed for productions like the film Dance of the Dragon and ChildAid 2010. Both of them also became experienced competition organisers and Grade ‘A’ Licensed Adjudicators for the WDSF; Gladys is also a certified technical examiner for the organisation, the first female dancer in Asia to hold the qualification.

In the 36 years since their first competition, the Singapore dancesport scene has grown by leaps and bounds. Many local dancers now begin training from early childhood, and several competitions are held here every year, something that both Shawn and Gladys are extremely proud of. However, they are also eager to see greater access to, and recognition of, dancesport in Singapore – for example, by having it recognised as a proper co-curricular activity (CCA) in schools.

“It’s so unique – elegant and graceful, a mix of the classical and the modern. A lot of parents, especially of girls, want their children to have some dance training, but this is also an opportunity for them to explore something they can express themselves in, and for the whole family to bond,” said Gladys.

“When children do dancesport, they learn how to set goals, how to motivate themselves,” added Shawn. “You want to keep moving, you want to be better. I can’t imagine anything that would be better for young kids.”

Gladys with their daughter, Isabelle, in their studio. Of the couple’s two children, Isabelle inherited her parents’ love for dance, but her younger brother Grant’s interests lie off the stage. Photo courtesy of Shawn and Gladys Tay

Above all, however, they credit their devotion to and respect for each other as being the foundation upon which all their successes have been built. “When we started out as boyfriend and girlfriend, we suffered together, we travelled, we got through so many difficult times together, so we learned to share our problems and face them together,” said Shawn.

“Sometimes when we speak, we say the same thing at the same time. And even now, when I travel, I call Gladys every night before she goes to bed. Without dance, I don’t think we would have this kind of relationship.”

“I think we complement each other,” added Gladys. “We breathe the same air, understand each other through and through, and support each other in everything, because in our world it’s only ‘we’, never ‘I’,” she said, smiling. “That’s just how it’s always been from the start.”

 

Written by: Chew Hui Lin

This blogpost is part of the Red Dot Stories campaign

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