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Still high from their performance at the President’s Star Charity where they danced with Mediacorp stars Zoe Tay and Zhang Zetong, Alief Fiqhry Ayob and Jeremiah Liauw are rehearsing hard for their next big performance. The duo are part of a group of dancers from Dance Spectrum International (DSI) and they are performing at this year’s Purple Parade virtual concert.

Founded in 2013, the Purple Parade is Singapore’s largest movement supporting inclusion and celebrating persons with disabilities (PWDs).

The ninth edition of its annual concert will be livestreamed tomorrow on Facebook Live (Oct 30) at 3pm, with many segments pre-recorded due to Covid-19 restrictions.

Participants practicing for Purple Parade virtual concert
Image Source: APSN Delta Senior School

Several groups, such as The Purple Symphony, Very Special Choir, and APSN Delta Senior School will be performing at this year’s concert, showcasing a variety of talents.

Alief, 23, who is on the autism spectrum, is not a newcomer to Purple Parade. His first Purple Parade was in 2014 when he was a student in a special education school. However, for his new dance partner, 15-year-old Jeremiah, the Purple Parade is only his second public performance as a dancer.

Soaring together in inclusive dance

Born with spina bifida, a condition that affects the spine, Jeremiah is unable to walk and relies on a wheelchair to get around.

His entry into dance would not have been possible without DSI founder Sharon Liew. The veteran dance instructor and choreographer saw Jeremiah watching his five-year-old sister Joy at her dance class and asked if he wanted to join in as well.

Jeremiah, who is also a competitive swimmer and has qualified for the Asia Youth Para Games in December, agreed immediately. He tells The Pride with a smile: “I told her, ‘OK! Let’s do it!”

That led to him and Alief being the focus of the performance from DSI for the Purple Parade concert. The eight-dancer group from DSI will be reprising their dance “Let My Spirit Soar”, which they performed at the President’s Star Charity. The choreography reflects how Jeremiah feels about dance, even from the confines of his wheelchair.

This year's Purple Parade virtual concert features wheelchair dancing
Alief and Jeremiah practising their dance moves. Image source: Lianne Ong

“I enjoy dancing because I feel so free and happy,” says Jeremiah.

“Ms Sharon adapts the movements to include me, that’s very special. She brings out the uniqueness in all of us after seeing what we can do individually. For example, when she saw I could do wheelies, she included that in the choreography!” he laughs.

Jeremiah had taught himself to do wheelies – spinning in his wheelchair with the front wheels off the ground – when he was younger, something that his mother doesn’t approve of entirely, he confides with a grin.

Aside from Alief and Jeremiah, the inclusive dance group comprises Sharon’s advanced dance students, many of whom have been in her school for 15 years.

Currently DSI has 4 dancers with disabilities. These students attended Autism Resource Centre/ Pathlight School, where Sharon had volunteered as the dance instructor for the Dance Talent CCA for 10 years..

“We are trying to grow the next generation of dancers who have worked with people with disabilities and understand them,” Sharon tells The Pride.

She says that building an inclusive culture in DSI was also made possible because of the support from her non-disabled dancers and their parents.

“It is the girls’ willingness to embrace dancers with disabilities that makes this work,” says Sharon.

Chan Yi Jia, 20, who has been a dance student at DSI since she was four says: “We’re very privileged and honoured to work with Alief and Jeremiah. It’s been inspiring for all of us to see what Jeremiah is capable of doing with his wheelchair and what he’s game to try. We just all want to make the dance as beautiful as possible as a team.”

Dance Spectrum International - Purple Parade virtual concert
Jeremiah and Claire Kamakar recording for Purple Parade. Image source: Dance Spectrum International

A law and global studies undergraduate at the University of Sydney, Yi Jia says Alief and Jeremiah have spurred the other dancers to work harder to match their level of enthusiasm.

Sharon is often asked how she conducts classes with special-needs kids and still maintain a high standard of dance. She explains: “I’m not just doing this for the sake of special needs. It’s about challenging both groups to work together.”

The success of the group – and indeed, any group that aims to be inclusive – is an indicator of how comfortable the PWDs feel.

Alief, who works full time at Professor Brawn Cafe as service staff, says dancing with DSI “feels like a family with all my friends”.

Sharon said that Jeremiah’s mother told her that she had never seen him so motivated before, even taking public transport on his own so as not to be late for rehearsals.

After the Purple Parade performance, Sharon wants to focus on creating awareness outside their immediate community. Her dream? “A permanent space that is dedicated to teach inclusive dance, so that a proper programme can be developed for the community.”

From being non-verbal to becoming singers at heart

Starting a choir from scratch is no mean feat. But imagine starting one with members who have myriad challenges including global developmental delay, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), Down syndrome, Williams syndrome and intellectual disability.

Enter the Very Special Choir, a performing group under Very Special Arts Singapore.

Cher Xuan at his Purple Parade voice recording session. Image source: VSA

When the executive director of Very Special Arts Singapore Maureen Goh mooted the idea of starting a choir in 2018, Fran Ho, their vocal teacher noted that many of the beneficiaries were non-verbal, while others would exhibit involuntary movements.

She started teaching them basic choral breathing, which helped to calm them down At each rehearsal, the group would go through a routine of breathing exercises and vocal warm-ups. This routine, together with consistent rules and clear instructions, helped to create a familiar and comforting environment for the beneficiaries.

She also made the rehearsals fun, such as organising open mic nights where a soloist would be picked to present a song.

Gradually the choir members discovered their voices and became curious about the sounds they could create.

“Learning to sing became a process of self-discovery for them,” Fran tells The Pride.

The choir grew to more than 20 singers, with ages ranging from 8 to 29 years old.

Then the pandemic hit. And rehearsals had to go online.

Peter Sau, Head of Artistic Development (Performing Arts), explains: “Going online is not ideal, especially for a choir, but the routine was important for our beneficiaries to ensure their quality of life and social and emotional well-being. Even though they might not be pitch perfect, they are singers at heart!”

Julian Chong, father of 22-year-old beneficiary Janna, says: “Janna seldom speaks. But she sings all the lyrics and enjoys the entire process. We are grateful that the Very Special Choir has provided such a platform for Janna to engage in an activity that she loves, in such a friendly and inclusive environment.”

Purple Parade virtual concert - VS Choir 2019 at the Istana
The Very Special Choir at the Istana in 2019. Image source: VSA

When the choir finally met in person to film their segment for the Purple Parade, the choristers were excited to see each other after a long spell of Zoom rehearsals.

One parent, Margaret Han, said her son, Tan Cher Xuan, 23, really enjoyed performing with the choir. “I am very thankful for the voice recording and shooting opportunities [that Purple Parade has given]. This gives a chance for our children to see themselves performing on camera and in videos.”

For the Purple Parade, the Very Special Choir will be joining two other groups, Equaver and Chordinate Singers, for their performance.

Debut circus arts group learns to perform under changing circumstances

Diabolo, plate spinning, and juggling… these skills are something you’d expect from performers at a circus troupe.

And you wouldn’t be far off, except that these performers come from APSN Delta Senior School.

The post-secondary vocational school decided to start a Circus Arts CCA in January this year to continue working on the skills of several students who graduated from feeder school APSN Katong.

“We didn’t want them to waste the skills they had picked up,” explains Ramon De Villa, 30, a literacy teacher and arts coordinator, adding that the CCA was designed to provide a safe and nurturing platform for the students to build self-confidence, resilience and teamwork.

The CCA’s performing group, called D’Circulus, will give its debut performance at the Purple Parade.

Yong Jian practising the diabolo. Image source: APSN Delta Senior School

The group has seven members from 16 to 19 years old: each learning skills such as diabolo, spinning plates, streamer poi or juggling. Despite their range of disabilities, including mild intellectual disability, ASD and ADHD, the students execute the skills well.

Benjamin Teo Wei Ping, 30, their coach from Circus in Motion, says that rapport with the students came first.

“The biggest challenge is managing their physical and mental states. Pacing is necessary to avoid burnout.”

Due to the pandemic, practices were interrupted and training had to go online, with the students practicing at home, and often in areas too small to perform the skills properly.

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“It is very challenging not to be able to correct their errors in person. Some things are very difficult to explain over Zoom. To ensure that they understood, I usually screened tutorial videos to guide them,” Benjamin says.

“We wondered whether they would be able to execute the performance, as they had not had in-person training for a few weeks and it was also the first time performing in an outdoor setting,” Ramon adds.

But they didn’t count on the motivation of the students themselves and when filming started, the recording went without a hitch.

“When they saw a professional filming crew, cameras and lighting equipment, they were happy to be able to show off their skills,” Ramon laughs.

Coach Benjamin assisting the participants on the stilts. Image Source: APSN Delta Senior School

Eighteen-year-old D’Circulus member Kwek Yong Jian, who has mild intellectual disability, says: “My favourite part of a performance is the end when people applaud. It’s very reassuring that they liked what we did.”

The Purple Parade will be streamed on Facebook Live tomorrow (Oct 30) at 3pm.