Did you know Malaysia has our very own dance society community?
That’s right! It’s called The Dance Society of Malaysia (TDS) and it’s current president is non other than President Sunny Chan Hean Kee. He has trained overseas with several renowned international teachers, performed on various stages, and has played a big role in bringing up the local ballet scene ever since his return to Malaysia in 1978.
Here’s an exclusive interview with President Sunny Chan and his journey as a dancer to becoming president of TDS in the local ballet scene!
Sunny Chan’s Fast Facts & Personal Accomplishments
- Maintains his professional career as an architect while dancing.
- An accomplished pianist until the age of 17 in Australia.
- Closely associated with many ballet schools especially the Australian Ballet School.
- 1993 – current: President of The Dance Society of Malaysia
Q: Tell us a little about your dance history.
A: I’m more associated with the Australian Ballet School because when it was founded, I was already there. When I around 14-15 years old, I was in a boarding school in Australia and I wanted to do ballet. Dame Margaret Scott and Dame Peggy van Praagh recommended me to go learn from Martin Rubinstein, the last ballet russe dancer. At that time I couldn’t get into the company because I was still a student. He was my teacher, and I was thrilled to have him. But he was a very strict teacher. He used the cane a lot on all of us. But I learned a lot from him.
Q: Can you tell us some of your stories when you were training previously?
A: Maybe I’m very lucky. I pursued my professionalism in architecture in the UK while still going to dance classes. I had a group of friends, altogether 5 of us, mostly from Australia and Canada. We were all very poor in London at that time and I was in my 20’s.
The dance center Covent Garden is not what it is today. We used to go there early in the morning on Sundays before class started and we would go to a particular coffee shop. We didn’t have enough money so we only bought a cup of tea or coffee, and we brought our own empty cups to share. Although the shopkeeper wasn’t very happy at first, soon she understood our situation and that’s how we made friends. We also went around the fruits and vegetable markets where we picked up the fruits that were thrown away. We threw the bad parts and kept the good parts, and that’s our weekly supply where we kept in our dance bag. But we survived through it and looking back on it, that’s something we really learned.
England was so cold and buying leg warmers were very expensive. We knew some of the Royal Ballet dancers that would throw away their old dancewear. We saw it, took them, and we wore them. It’s just too expensive to buy! We even took in old shoes. I took the men shoes, but most of them were too big for my Asian feet! I only took some from Alexander Grant. But this is how we made friends.
Q: What does ballet/dance mean to you?
A: I think dance is a good education system. It teaches you detail. So in life, you pay more attention to details such as in what you wear and eat. It’s a balance.
Q: Based on your experience of watching generations of dancers, what insight can you give/what are your thoughts?
A: You get to see how a person develops through dance and how a person can be a better person. Appreciate arts, and then you won’t be a boring person.
Q: What advice do you have for budding/upcoming ballet dancers?
A: My advice to all dancers is that you must have a second profession to fall back on. Don’t just stick to one. Everyone must fall back to something else they love unless you are planning to teach in the future.
It’s also a good backup for whenever unforeseen injuries occur and it may affect your dance career. I recommend accountancy and law. It’s to keep your books and to know your rights.
Q: What do you hope to see in the future of Malaysia’s ballet scene?
A: I’m hoping in Malaysia through Ballet training, we can start small groups in each state. I also hope that Malaysia can have a ballet company in the coming years. The works of a dance company must be of good quality to attract the audience. But this shows it is difficult to form a dance company. It’s all about funding, getting an audience.
Q: There’s a very big imbalance between male and female dancers in Malaysia. What do you think of gender inequality in Malaysia’s ballet scene?
A: I don’t see the difference much because I see now there are more boys. It takes time. But this is also because the boys usually start late.
I was quite surprised by the number of boys this year that took part in the TDS competition. I know there are some studios that take part in the competition knowing they might not win a place. Even so, they still wanted to be a part of it because they wanted to know how they feel. First time on stage, who isn’t scared?
Q: There’s a stigma surrounding male ballet dancers in Malaysia; what are your thoughts on it?
A: Well, I’m glad that through ASWARA which was started by Joseph Gozales, we are getting more Malay boys. For the Chinese boys, I think it has got to do with parents. They think its sissy, but it really isn’t. It’s all hard work!
I always asked people to try taking up a dance class. It’s hard work on the body. It’s different from building muscles in the gym because in dance you are building muscles for balance and partner lifting. Even weightlifters may not be able to lift someone up because their muscles may be too bulky. It takes both strength and skill to endure the long hours of training.
As for the stigma of male dancers, I believe there is no stigma. It’s entirely up to them. You have to make that change for yourself.
Q: What are the biggest achievements since being president of TDS?
A: I see a lot of improvement and more people interested. When I first started as president, there were only 12-15 contestants in the TDS competition. We only had minimal in the bank account. For memberships, we only had 20 previously but now we have almost a thousand.
Q: What are the upcoming plans for TDS and development in the Malaysian Ballet scene?
A: We are going more into Malaysian elements. It’s difficult because we are culturally diverse in Malaysia. But it’s okay because these things take time.
In the past competitions, we had contestants who submitted their dance that also had Malaysian elements in it. So I decided to start this and hope to further develop it. If there are more people who want to contribute and expand the choreography work by creating a Malaysian style of work, they are more than welcomed.
Q: Are there any plans for TDS Malaysia to venture into other dance forms other than classical Ballet?
A: I will not say no, if and when new committee members come in. As long as there are quality and technique. It can be done, it’s all up to the individual. We need manpower. The more people join us as a committee, the more things we can do.
Q: What can the public do to help raise awareness for the local dance scene, dancers and non-dancers alike?
A: We need to educate the public. When I was in Australia I got interested when a dance company came into the schools to perform. It got me very interested in dance. So when I came back, I tried to do that. It’s to create an audience. However, there was a lack of government support.
So it’s all about educating the public about dance and creating an audience that supports and enjoys dance. I always tell dancers to get other people to be interested in dance shows. It’s hard because all of us in Malaysia are culturally diverse, but with time and effort, it’s doable. I will always buy tickets to any show and invite people and hopefully they like it, they will come on their own the next time.
It’s also important we all start getting together. Not necessarily in TDS, but a group where you have similar interests. Get together! And if you do something and it’s good, get sponsors. I’m sure some people are looking for continuity, whether it benefits society or not. I think that is the important thing.
The Dance Society of Malaysia
The Dance Society of Malaysia was first founded by Ms Lee Lee Lan in 1985 and was registered a year later in 1986. The Dance Society of Malaysia’s (TDS) main aim is to raise the standard and awareness of dance, especially ballet, in this country while at the same time providing a platform for talented young dancers to showcase their talents.
The TDS Solo Classical Ballet Competition is held annually to promote and provide young Malaysian dancers an opportunity to showcase their skills and talent on a national stage. TDS have also organized many workshops by Malaysian and foreign visiting dance teachers which are usually well attended. Other than that, they also collaborate with KL Dance Works to produce yearly dance performances.
For more details, check out their website and social media!
Note: Interview has been edited for length and clarity purposes.
Grace Constance Rundi
Continuously searching for an artistic voice, spotting muses, and drawing inspirations.