There aren’t many septuagenarians I know who can hold an arabesque without wobbling.
Actually, I know of just one, and she does it more gracefully than a ballet dancer half her age.
Madam Shen Zhi Hua walks with an energetic and confident stride. She has much to do and no time to waste. Her agile movements reflect the prominent role of dance in her life, and her keen eyes and sharp wit tell of a life lived fully.
Her dance students — I am one of them — call her 沈老师 (shen lao shi, or Teacher Shen in Mandarin) and she doesn’t plan on retiring any time soon.
And it’s not just ballet, Teacher Shen has been involved in the fine arts all her life — dance forms the focal point of her artistic interests but she writes and paints too.
She communicates eloquently about the things that matter to her covering a broad range of topics, all in rapid-fire Mandarin that belies her energy and passion.
Early life in Shanghai
Growing up in Shanghai, a young Teacher Shen was handpicked from among her classmates to audition for the Shanghai Ballet Academy.
At just 13, she left home and joined the dance academy where she trained from 1960 to 1966.
She tells The Pride: “My parents had six children and I was the eldest. Being at the Shanghai Ballet Academy meant that the cost of feeding and clothing me would have been borne by the state. That relieved the financial burden my family faced. I did not miss my family much because I could return home once a week.”
After she graduated from the academy, she joined the Shanghai Ballet Company for 15 years, where she rose to become principal dancer and choreographer.
In 1984, she came to Singapore.
Teacher Shen says: “As professionals, we demand a lot of ourselves and we will not step on the stage without proper training and practice.”
As such, she has not performed on stage since leaving her professional dance career, except for once in 2019 where she and an old friend choreographed and performed a dance to commemorate Singapore’s bicentennial.
The two, who met as students at the Shanghai Ballet Academy, and who are both now naturalised Singaporeans (she became a citizen in 1992), wanted to present a tribute to Singapore’s growth and development over the years, and express their hopes for the country’s future.
Dealing with Covid
Even though Covid-19 was a big challenge to the fine arts sector, Teacher Shen used it as an opportunity to contribute to the community.
Aware of the importance of observing hygiene practices at the start of the Covid-19 outbreak, Teacher Shen devised dance steps miming handwashing and safe distancing measures and shared them with her young ballet students.
When Singapore entered the circuit breaker in the first half of 2020, Teacher Shen wanted to encourage her students to continue dancing in their homes, so she shared videos of her daily exercise routines and recordings of dance classes.
She even came up with a theme to lift her students’ and sustain their interest in dance. Teacher Shen asked friends and students for photographs of themselves in a ballet stance posing with everyday household objects.
She received numerous photographs of dancers wielding household appliances and performing humdrum household chores — all the while standing en pointe or in other graceful poses.
It got enough attention online that it even got a feature in Chinese daily Lianhe Zaobao. And that has inspired her to do more, she says.
“I will use my imagination and creativity to share more dance-related projects on social media for everyone to enjoy. Look out for it!”
Struggles in life
With all her positive energy, you would never be able to guess that Teacher Shen’s life has been far from smooth.
She moved here in 1984 and when her marriage ended some years later, her ex-husband moved to the US with her son and daughter, leaving her alone in Singapore. She says that it was during this time that she learned to embrace her solitude, teaching herself to paint using a variety of media, such as Chinese ink, watercolours and oil pastels.
It was not an easy time, she admits.
“Once, when I was staying alone, I contracted a high fever and was in great discomfort at home. I did not want to bother my friends, so I bore with the pain through the night until the next morning, when I finally called a friend, who took me to the hospital. It turned out to be dengue fever.”
This attitude, of always being ready to help others but not to ask for help, reflects the independence and resilience that characterises Teacher Shen’s approach to life.
She adds: “Perhaps it is my ballet training that gives me this strength. When I joined the Shanghai Ballet Academy at age 13, we would wake up at 6am and run three rounds around the running track before breakfast. This was followed by four hours of training, lunch and a rest, before we resumed rehearsals.”
She did this every day for six years at the academy.
“In general, ballet dancers are not afraid of pain. We are used to the pain from training. This, in turn, helps us to face other difficulties head on.”
Through all her ups and downs, she continued to teach dance. Today, on top of her work as a ballet instructor, Teacher Shen is also the vice-president and choreographer at the Tampines Arts Troupe.
Beyond dance, she writes stories for the Singapore Literature Society, and recently contributed an article to Chinese daily Lianhe Zaobao. She has even written a book, published in 2015, about a girl whose life revolves around dance.
During our interview, she lays out stacks of her paintings. Clearly, her talent and drive to excel extends from dance to writing and even to painting.
Finding resilience and adaptability
When Covid-19 led to the cancellation of in-person ballet classes, Teacher Shen turned to technology. She gets motivated when she sees students continuing to attend her classes and feels that it is her responsibility to ensure that the lessons happen. So, last year, at the height of Covid, she learned to use Zoom to conduct online meetings and dance lessons.
She quotes a Chinese proverb “活到老学到老” (huo dao lao, xue dao lao, or learning never ceases), adding “I prefer face-to-face interactions, which are more personal. But I will adapt.”
Even as Singapore opens up in the Covid new normal, Teacher Shen is ready. She is already fully vaccinated and is encouraging her friends to do the same.
She exclaims: “This is the responsibility of every citizen! The faster we get back to our normal lives, the better. I think the government is doing a good job, the more vaccinated people there are, the easier it is to protect ourselves and our families.”
Family gives her strength
Teacher Shen credits her family for her out-going nature.
“My mother was a nurse before she stopped working to look after my five siblings and me. Her parents used to run a restaurant. We were used to extending our hospitality to our friends through food. My father was an accountant who swam and played badminton.
“My siblings and I were influenced by this home environment and, as a result, none of us are introverts.”
She adds: “We face problems head-on and are practical when it comes to finding solutions. (In all situations) I remind myself to count my blessings.”
Her blessings include her 42-year old daughter, who has Down Syndrome and stays with her in Singapore. Teacher Shen cares for her with the support of a helper. Her 32-year old son is in the US, working in Silicon Valley, she says with a smile. They remain close despite the distance and they communicate regularly.
Teacher Shen speaks of both of her children in the way only a parent can — her pride and affection for them coming through clearly when she talks about them.
“I’m not that unusual”
So what keeps her going? Teacher Shen seems momentarily nonplussed when asked that question. She acknowledges that age does bring the usual aches and pains. But that hasn’t stopped her from doing all the things that she does.
“I am not unusual. There are other people in their 70s who are also commendable.”
And so, Teacher Shen continues to do all the things that she wants to do with her signature energy and zest for life.
She continues to teach — demonstrating ballet moves with graceful strength and catching out students who misstep in the dance studio.
Her humour comes out when she gives a sigh and laughs, acknowledging that some students are not quite able to meet her expectations yet (eek).
But she says she has learned to take things in her stride and to move forward, as she always has done.
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As she ends the interview, I couldn’t help but think of another Chinese proverb which applies so aptly to Teacher Shen — 宝刀未老 (bao dao wei lao). Literally translated, it means that a precious sword will never grow old.
That’s my Teacher Shen, who, at 74, is still slicing through life with verve and energy.
After the interview, she texts me to tell me that a commemorative book that she contributed to for Singapore’s 56th year has been published and is on sale now — the proceeds would go to charity.
She promises me a copy at our next dance class. It’s hard to keep up with her.