Han Kee Juan, 60, is the Principal of the Singapore Ballet Academy (SBA). After an unlikely introduction to ballet as a young boy in Singapore in the 1960s, he went on to enjoy a successful career as a professional ballet dancer in Australia and the United States, before becoming an acclaimed ballet teacher. We had the privilege of sitting down with him to hear him speak about his dance journey.
Han Kee Juan possesses a grace which makes him fascinating to watch. A former professional ballet dancer and long-time ballet teacher, he spoke slowly and carefully, gesturing often with his hands, always poised and expressive.
“I’ve been asked why I dance, and I believe it’s a calling,” he said. “I came from a big family, and ballet was an escape – it allowed me to get away from home for an hour or two and just really enjoy what I do.”
When Han Kee Juan left a career as a professional dancer to become a full-time ballet teacher, his mother asked, “Are you going to go back to university and get a real job?” Image source: Singapore Ballet Academy
Kee Juan grew up one of seven children in a poor household, far removed from the glamorous world of ballet. His uncle, however, was the housekeeper for Florrie Sinclair, a Scottish lady who was one of Singapore’s pioneering ballet teachers. It was through this fortuitous connection that Kee Juan, then aged 10, enrolled in her classes – his first taste of ballet. However, his journey nearly came to an end just as it had begun.
“After three months, my mother said ‘this is getting too expensive, I have six other mouths to feed,’” recalled Kee Juan. “But Florrie gave me a scholarship, so I continued to dance and train with her.” He later received a scholarship to keep training at the SBA, where he spent many happy hours practising during his teenage years.
“I enjoyed ballet because it needed a lot of discipline,” he went on. “It helped me focus on things, it made me want to do well within a framework. And that was very good for me.” He even decided not to join any sports clubs while in school so that he could focus on ballet, because to him, “dance always came first.”
On top of his regular classes at the SBA, Kee Juan was often invited to perform at variety shows during the 1960s and 1970s, some of which were screened on TV. He had the opportunity to dance backup for Rahimah Rahim, and even got to join a group that was touring Southeast Asia. His ballet training made it easier for him to pick up the different dance styles featured, such as Chinese dance.
A clipping from the New Nation newspaper, dated 19 April 1975, when Kee Juan was just 17 – one of his early features in the press. Image courtesy of Han Kee Juan
Being a male ballet dancer – a rarity even today, not least in 1960s Singapore – made him a target of teasing from his peers, though appearing on TV mitigated the worst of it. In any case, Kee Juan refused to let it get to him. “You’ve just got to do what you want to do. I loved ballet so much, I didn’t really care if I got teased,” he said. As it turned out, more obstacles lay in store.
When he was 16, Kee Juan won a scholarship to the prestigious Royal Ballet School in London, an incredible feat even today. Unfortunately, it was not to be.
“There’s a bond you need to pay the government if you want to defer your National Service (NS),” he explained. “In my day, in the early 1970s, it was about $30,000 – a lot of money. So I didn’t go to the Royal Ballet School, because we just couldn’t raise it.”
If he was disappointed at having to give up the opportunity of a lifetime, Kee Juan didn’t let it mire him in bitterness. He insisted that he learned a lot while in the army– lessons which, in fact, helped his dancing. “I learned about teamwork and hard work, and a lot about discipline. Plus, it helped me improve my stamina, [going on] three-mile runs with your backpack and all that.” Along the way, he kept up with ballet as best as he could, fitting in classes at the SBA when he booked out on the weekends.
After finishing NS, Kee Juan moved to Australia for professional training at the Sydney Ballet Academy. It was an era of firsts: the first time he had trained in a professional environment, and the first time he had lived by himself in a foreign country.
“I had total culture shock!” he said, eyes wide. “I’d never lived by myself before. I had to share an apartment with three other boys,” he said, grimacing. “I had to learn to cook, wash my own clothes, whereas in Singapore your parents do everything for you. Also, I was the only Asian boy – well, not boy, man, but most of my classmates were much younger than me.”
“But what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” he went on. “So I learned to deal with it, and my way of dealing with it was to work harder and better than most. It makes you a better person.”
The resilience he developed from these early challenges went on to serve him well in his professional life. Ballet is a notoriously uncompromising art; only the toughest and most determined make it through their training, and even then, not all are lucky enough to secure careers on the stage. Kee Juan was one of the successful few: he went on to dance professionally for about 15 years with various companies in Australia and North America, before moving on to become a ballet teacher when he was 35.
“I had two knee surgeries, and after the second one I decided that was it,” he said. “I mean, I loved to dance, I was still in good shape, but I’d never missed a performance in my life and I didn’t want to have to start doing that…your body tells you when you need to stop.”
Settling in the United States, he became the School Director at Ballet Arizona, then taught at the North Carolina School of the Arts before moving to Washington, D.C., to head the Washington School of Ballet. He has received particular acclaim and awards for his teaching; in 2014, he made the cover of Dance Teacher magazine with David Hallberg, a former student of his who is now a Principal at the Bolshoi Ballet and the American Ballet Theatre, two of the world’s most prestigious ballet companies.
To Kee Juan, teaching was where he really found his niche. “When I was dancing, I was so critical of myself. Out of the thousands of performances I’ve done, I would say there were only a handful where I really enjoyed myself, but I find teaching much more rewarding,” he said.
He regards himself as a parent to the thousands of students who have come under his tutelage, and takes pride in their achievements, whether in dance or elsewhere in life. “I’m always very proud of them, whether they become professional dancers or not. Like when I correct a young kid, and when I see he or she got the correction – that is wonderful for me.”
Looking back on the state of ballet education during his childhood in the 1960s, Kee Juan is generally pleased with the progress that has since been made in exposing children to ballet – the opening of the School of the Arts (SOTA), the establishment of the Singapore Dance Theatre, the rise in foreign dance companies visiting Singapore on tour, and the proliferation of ballet classes for children.
He is troubled, however, by the reluctance of most Singaporean parents to regard dancing as a viable and respectable career in its own right, compounded by the tendency to emphasise academic achievement above all else.
“I think many parents want their children to have some exposure to dance, but not for them to do it as a career,” he mused. “And this is just my perception, but…sometimes I think the dedication is not as deep as it used to be. In my time there weren’t so many distractions. We didn’t have 补习 [tuition classes], you could just go for ballet class after school. Now, when it comes to exam time, most kids don’t even turn up for class.”
Kee Juan chatting with one of his current students, Natalie, at the SBA, for a video interview. Photo by: Catherine Nicholas
On his part, Kee Juan is doing his best to impart the lessons from his years of professional experience to his students at the SBA. He moved back to Singapore in July 2016 to head the school, at the invitation of Goh Soo Khim, his former teacher and the director of the SBA. After more than 40 years abroad, he not only wanted to be closer to family, but felt it was time to give back to the school which had given him so much.
In this, he is bringing his own brand of holistic teaching to the SBA. Although the SBA does not offer professional training, “what we do here is not just for fun – it’s dance education,” he said, emphasising the last two words. “Dancers need to be educated. I mean, you can’t dance Romeo and Juliet without knowing the story, you know?” he quipped.
More than that, however, he hopes to inculcate discipline, humility, and more importantly, respect in his young charges – the values that have served him well over a long and storied career. “Learning is about respect,” he said. “You need to respect yourself, your friends, your teacher and the pianist, and most importantly the art form. You’re not here to exercise, you’re here to do classical ballet.”
“For example, I might tell my students – say, if your friends are all cast as fairies and you only get the part of the flower that stands at the side, should you be upset?”
He paused. “Of course you should be upset. You should be upset that your friends are fairies and you’re just the flower.”
“But you get on with it. And you go be the best flower.”
Written by: Chew Hui Lin
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