Much has been said about doing what you love, but it’s a whole other thing to see it in actual practice – and for half a century, too.
Meet Mrs Jean Chan who – at 83 years old – still walks with the poise of a trained ballet dancer, and works four days a week at the Singapore Chinese Girls’ School (SCGS), doing what she loves most for 49 years. She has taught more girls than she can count, spanning three generations.
Jean – who has three grandchildren – is such an institution at the school that when she retired from the Ministry of Education in 1996, the then-principal Low Ay Nar created a brand-new position – dance consultant – and persuaded her to stay on. She has been directly employed under the school, with her contracts renewed every year since then.
And, Jean made SCGS known for dance, acknowledges former student Melissa Quek, 38, now head of the School of Dance & Theatre at Lasalle College of the Arts. She has known Jean since 1987. “I’m not sure if I would’ve become a dancer and choreographer if not for her.”
Well-loved by her students, Jean now takes care of the administrative work, programme planning and dance exams.
SCGS principal Eugenia Lim tells Her World: “She has played a pivotal role in developing the SCGS dance programme over the past few decades. Her devotion to the girls’ learning, her commitment to excellence, and the extra mile she goes to give our girls to learn from different professionals in the ﬁeld, have made the dance programme a distinctive niche of the school.”
Over the decades, SCGS has consistently clinched local and international accolades in dance, including top awards at the annual Singapore Youth Festival dance performances.
It has also introduced many ﬁrsts under Jean’s guidance, such as dedicated ballet masters, and certiﬁed enrichment dance classes, which Julie Kwong, 65, an in-house legal consultant at ISS International School, describes as “like having a dance school within the school”. Julie was one of Jean’s ﬁrst students in 1970, before they became colleagues at SCGS in 1984.
In the early days, people didn’t always hold dance in high regard, says Jean.
“Some used to say, if you let your daughters do dance, all their brains go to their feet. Others think only ditzy girls do dance.”
It’s a surprise to discover that she stumbled onto her path by chance. “I didn’t plan to go into dance, nor into teaching,” she says in her calm voice. “I studied economics at university, but they didn’t take women in the banks.” She joined SCGS as an English and English literature teacher in 1970.
Three weeks into her job, then-principal Tan Sock Kern asked if she would take over the sports day dance item from the teacher who was leaving.
Jean, who was then in her 30s, agreed. She was made a head of department, and has been in charge of dance ever since.
She was well-equipped for the position, having trained in ballet at 14 under Maudrene Yap, Singapore’s ﬁrst Royal Academy of Dance teacher, and later, went on to train under local dance legends, Vernon Martinez and Frances Poh.
“I come from an artistic family,” Jean, a mother of three, reminisces. “My late father had an orchestra, and my two brothers learnt tap dance.”
DARE TO DREAM
Once she was in charge of dance, Jean set about turning each of her visions into reality. While overseas school trips are common now, it was fairly revolutionary for a girls’ school in 1977.
“My sons went on trips overseas with their school band, and I thought, why not us?” she says. The ﬁrst trip she organised was to the Philippines, followed by a three-week trip to the United States, and three trips to Barcelona, Spain.
Former SCGS alumni Kan Shook Wah, 61, a retired civil servant, named the Dare To Dream scholarship she founded after a phrase Jean used one day while addressing the class.
Shook Wah says: “Those days, school was about strict discipline. It was refreshing to have a teacher tell us that we had the licence to dream. It was very liberating!”
Jean pays equal attention to the smallest details. Even now, she makes nearly all the elaborate costumes, from headwear to shoes, with a group of volunteers and suppliers, some of whom she has worked with for decades.
SCGS dance instructor Vanessa Dewi Harijanto, 40, says: “She’ll change the ribbons of a maypole to match the trim on the costume, adding a shiny sequin bow on a shoe, or making little beaded earrings to complete the costume.”
When a primary school student recently grew to twice the height of her friends and didn’t have a costume that ﬁt, Jean sourced for a similar material and raised the money to make one.
“I always believe that every girl who tries must be given a chance,” she says.
THERE TO WIN
Jean expects no less than excellence from her students. “I tell the girls, there’s no such thing as ‘anything will do’. You’re there to win,” she says.
Former SCGS dance student Sabelle Kee, 21, now a national water-skier, says she learnt the discipline and drive that helped her succeed in both sports and school from observing Jean.
“She would even come back on weekends to help hand-sew all the sequins onto our costumes,” she says. “Without her teaching, I would not be where I am today.”
Jean is far from just the strict ballet mistress. Her open, consultative approach, being decades ahead of her time, has served her well.
“The girls are more outspoken today. Sometimes, they tell me, ‘I think you should do it this way’,” Jean laughs. “I’m quite happy to hear that. I always say, come in and let’s talk about it.
“I always believe that children need to ﬁnd their own way. I tell parents – they must want to do it. Let them do what they like,” she says.
She was careful not to pressure her only granddaughter to dance, and encouraged her parents not to do so too – even though her mother is award- winning dancer, Tammy Wong.
“When she was about seven, she decided that she wanted to try tap. After a few weeks, she announced, ‘I think I’ve had enough’,” she says, with a laugh. “But in the process, she discovered she could sing!”
JUST DO IT
With workdays that can stretch to 11 hours, Jean admits that it does get tiring. “When the girls are naughty, I do feel like retiring!” she jokes.
As it is, she’s having her ankle checked for arthritis, and has cut back to a fourday work week. She says: “I have a husband at home! Wednesday is his day, he gets to decide what we do.”
This means coffee at Ya Kun and a trip to the theatre, for musicals and concerts.
“My friends always ask, ‘When are you going to stop?’ and I always say ‘I’m stopping soon!’”
Jean smiles. “My husband has always said, ‘If you’re happy to do it, go and do it.’”
“I tell the girls, there’s no such thing as ‘anything will do’. You’re there to win.”
“I always believe that every girl who tries must be given a chance.”
TEXT DONNA TANG PHOTOGRAPHY RAYMOND LEE/ CAPSULE PRODUCTIONS ART DIRECTION SHAN HAIR ASH LOI AT/ SONDER HAIR, USING KEUNE HAIRCOSMETICS SINGAPORE MAKEUP JYUE HUEY LOW/ THE MAKE UP ROOM