(March 26, 2023) Arangetram, the debut stage performance of Bharatanatyam dancers is a common affair but it made headlines in Singapore when Soo Mei Fei gave her first stage performance. With her one-and-half hour eclectic presentation, she not only made her gurus proud but also enthralled audiences who were watching a Singaporean Chinese female dancer perform Bharatanatyam for the first time on stage.
In two years of her much-talked Arangetram, the twenty-six-year-old danseuse has carved a niche in the performing arts circuit of Singapore, becoming a familiar face in major events and festivals.
“I’m blessed to learn Bharatanatyam,” she said in an interview. “It’s such a beautiful art. It’s not been an easy journey but it has been extremely fulfilling. I want to train more,” she added.
It all started when…
Soo Mei Fei was seventeen, she and her classmates at National Junior College of Singapore came across a poster that read, ‘Indian dance, try-out’. Fascinated by the world of Bollywood, fourteen of them, mostly non-Indians, got interested thinking that the advertisement is about Bollywood dancing. However, much to their dismay, it turned out to be an Indian classical dance form, Bharatanatyam – something that they had neither heard of nor were able to pronounce correctly.
All the youngsters dropped the idea of learning except Soo Mei Fei, who was intrigued by the dance form. She enrolled in the extra-curricular class, and within a few days, she was completely captivated.
The urge to know all about the oldest dance form of India got stronger by the day. The youngster found herself spending hours in major libraries in and around Punggol, where she lives, devouring all the information that she could gather on Bharatanatyam. Watching performances extensively on YouTube to ace the craft became a favourite past time.
Learning from Vijaya Nadesan, her teacher at the extra-curricular class who also taught in Apsara Arts, a leading dance academy in Singapore, Soo Mei Fei enrolled at the academy.
However, she had to deal with her own set of challenges in the process. Often taking more time than her Indian counterparts to grasp what was being taught, Soo Mei Fei also struggled to understand the lyrics of the Carnatic songs on which Bharatanatyam is performed. It was Google Translate that came to her rescue. With teachers also making extra efforts to help her, the youngster slowly started getting a grasp.
The dance academy required her to learn for two hours, but Mei Fei would spend the entire day watching other pupils and teachers dance, getting completely immersed in the world Bharatanatyam, enhancing her skills along the way.
Over the course of time, whether it was hastas (hand gestures), sthankas (leg and foot movement) or abhinaya (expression of emotions), the Singaporean Chinese dancer aced all, attaining perfection with her sheer dedication.
Connecting with the Indian culture
In the last decade, Soo Mei Fei has not just learned Bharatanatyam but also understood about the culture of India.
Today it’s hard to miss the Singaporean Chinese dancer even in a crowd because of her attire – the colourful Indian saris that she often adorns. While learning how to tie and carry herself in a sari was difficult initially, she is now an expert in it.
Due to her facial features, which are different from her Indian counterparts, Soo Mei Fei had to also put additional efforts to teach herself the make-up requirements that is pivotal to Bharatanatyam performances. “Most of my friends had their mums to help them get dressed but I had to learn lots of things on my own getting valuable tips from my friends and teachers along the way.”
The dancer devours Carnatic music. “It’s very rich. The lyrics and melody have a lot of meaning behind it. I understand the songs because I feel it,” she says. Since 2018 she has been also learning Odissi, another ancient Indian dance form.
The course of life
Indebted to her gurus for recognising the spark in her and working very hard to train her, Soo Mei Fei’s world revolves around Bharatanatyam. Other than the performances, her work as instructor at children’s enrichment centres and dance academies in Singapore keeps her busy.
“Art should not have boundaries. It’s a great learning experience to know more about another culture that is different from us. In doing so, we discover that we are more similar to each other than what we thought,” she remarks.
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