From ballet to modern dance

I adored Moira Shearer in the film, “The Red Shoes” and couldn’t wait to enroll for ballet lessons. I was about 10 years old. The great Margot Fonteyn, whom I idolized, was only four when she started ballet lessons but better late than never I thought.

I entered an exciting new world. Our vivacious French ballet teacher coaxed us to perfect our five basic foot positions and the arm positions that go with each of them. There were endless stretching and strengthening exercises at the barre or bar – demi or grand plies, eleve, releve, tendu etc. – the foundation for all other ballet exercises, she said. There were numerous French words and steps to remember, among them pas de chat, pas de deux, pas de bourree. I loved the spins we did to beautiful music, going diagonally from one corner of the spacious studio to the other.

It was always a joy to watch my fellow ballet student Milly Koe. She had the strength, elegance and grace which ballet requires. Regrettably I did not and gave up after two years. Milly went on to become an outstanding dancer. Sadly she lost her life when the apartment building she lived in, the Highland Towers, collapsed in Ulu Klang.

The dance teacher I remember with the greatest affection is Dolores Wharton. In my final year at the University of Malaya (MU), I was immensely fortunate to get to know Dr Clifton Wharton, who was appointed John D Rockefeller Professor at MU, and his hugely talented and beautiful wife Dolores.

Dolores wanted some students to participate in a cultural show at MU and I signed up like a shot. She had trained under Martha Graham, one of the foremost pioneers of modern dance in America, and she cleverly blended modern dance techniques with those of traditional Malay dance.

In our first dance we formed rows which criss-crossed each other many times at different angles, the girls gracefully waving scarves in time to traditional Malay music. The second was a stylized football game played by the boys with the girls as ardent spectators.

The third was a “wayang kulit” or shadow play based on the Ramayana Hindu Epic. I was thrilled to be chosen to dance the part of Princess Sita. During her husband’s absence, Sita is abducted by the demon god Ravana but her husband eventually rescues her with the help of Hanuman, the monkey god. We wore elaborate costumes and moved in small steps, puppet-like, behind a giant lighted screen, like in a real shadow play, but from time to time emerged to dance in front of it.

Clifton and Dolores left after spending six years in Malaysia and both have had very distinguished careers. Clifton was the first African-American President of Michigan State University and has been outstanding in his lifelong commitment to public service. Dolores, in addition to her many educational, cultural and artistic interests, was elected the first woman and first African-American to the Board of Phillips Petroleum Company. She has served on the Boards of numerous corporations.

After many long years I heard from Dolores recently. She wrote to say she had sorted out her copious archives, found the video tapes her husband had made of our MU cultural show, and was sending them to me. They are now among my prized collection of tapes.


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