“Don’t ever give up – anything worth doing is not easy. Don’t be afraid to dream too – the force of one’s will is a force to be reckoned with.” Timothy Ng, Artist, Ballet dancer
Timothy was born in Singapore, and started learning classical ballet at the age of seven under Ms.Sylvia McCully. In 2011, after he finished his National Service, he joined Singapore Dance Theatre’s Scholars Program and remained with them till 2015. He also performed with Youth Dancers Singapore in Ballet Under the Stars 2011 and Macau International Youth Dance Festival 2012. Timothy has also performed with Cheng Ballet Academy in all their performances from 2013 to mid-2015. While continuing his training in classical ballet, Timothy also enrolled in Singapore University of Technology and Design, where he graduated in 2015 with a Bachelor of Engineering (Engineering Product Development – Mechanical Engineering) with First Class Honours. Timothy joined Singapore Dance Theatre as an apprentice in January 2016 and was promoted in January 2017. He has performed in Don Quixote, The Nutcracker, Coppelia, Theme and Variations, Peter and Blue Go Around the World, Symphony in Three Movements and 13th Heaven.
In conversation with Timothy Ng, a professional ballet dancer about his journey and how he broke stereotypes
Maisha: You are a professional ballet dancer; please share with us your journey and how you made the decision to take up ballet as your profession.
Timothy: It was my father who brought me to my first ballet class when I was 7; he brought me to Ms McCully who was his ballet teacher as well! At that time, ballet was still a hobby that I took very seriously. I would never miss the weekly classes and always looked forward to ballet school. I vividly remember how I loved being in the theatre from my very first performance with Ms McCully – and for reasons I cannot articulate in words, the theatre always felt like home in my heart. Yet, the concept of dancing professionally was foreign and so ballet remained a passionate hobby while I journeyed through the Singapore education system. It was in JC when I saw a video of Daniil Simkin (now a Principal Dancer at American Ballet Theatre) dancing in a ballet competition that truly inspired me and enabled to see how beautiful ballet could truly be when performed professionally.
From then on, the seed of professional dancing was sown in my mind. I went through my National Service (NS) thinking about what I wanted to pursue in my life. Upon completion of NS, I came across a Scholars’ Programme by Singapore Dance Theatre, which was a pre-professional ballet training course aimed at grooming students into professional ballet dancers. I jumped at the opportunity, knowing that there was no harm in giving myself a chance. I juggled my daily training with my heavy school workload at Singapore University of Technology and Design. Every day after school, I would travel for my ballet training to SDT and head back to school for meetings late in the night. Managing my studies while training daily was strenuous and many of my classmates at the Scholars’ Programme dropped out just a few terms into university. However, I remained determined and there was something that stopped me from giving up even though the thought crossed my mind multiple times. It was in my final year at SUTD that I finally made the decision to be a professional dancer – I knew I would regret it all my life if I didn’t at least try. So I auditioned for the company after I graduated, and by God’s grace I am where I am now.
Maisha: Who or what is your biggest inspiration in becoming a ballet dancer?
Timothy: My biggest and most important inspiration is my father. Whenever we had dance concerts my dad would always dance in a lead role and I would look up to him. He was the very first person I saw whenever I looked for a leader in dance. When I grew older my father gave me several advices that I still keep as a professional dancer. Although he wasn’t a professional dancer himself, he was an extremely talented dancer. I also saw many pictures of him dancing – he was charming and graceful; a natural dancer who was very photogenic. I believe that this enabled me to see the beauty in ballet. I strongly believe that if it weren’t for my father, I would never be the dancer I am today. He shaped my mind by showing me what a male ballet dancer should be since young and set the standard, which I still hold myself to till today.
Maisha: Has your career in ballet shaped your life in a positive way?
Timothy: Indeed, a career in ballet has shaped my life in a powerful and positive way. Ballet has taught me that anything worth doing isn’t easy and that if you want something you must fight for it. Thus, I have learnt to persevere in the face of discouragement, and I have learnt to find happiness in unhappy situations. I have also learnt how to keep working and to try my best even when I have lost motivation. Ballet has shown me that sincerity and honesty will show in my dancing and in my day-to-day actions, making me a better person. Ballet has also taught me that if I work hard I can achieve my dreams, as well as to treasure whatever opportunity I have. Ballet has in its own way also illustrated what love is about, because I don’t stop dancing even when I don’t feel the passion for it on any particular day but carry on to remain faithful to my art. My love for ballet grows deeper because of this.
Maisha: Have you encountered gender stereotypes, where it is said that ballet is a dance form for women and how did you overcome that in a world made up of predominantly female ballerinas?
Timothy: While I have encountered gender stereotypes, they have been far and few – only twice in my life. The first time was when I was 7 years old and I shared with my friend that I learnt ballet, who went on to tease me as “sissy”. The second time was when the mother of a girl I was dating wondered if I was gay. Apart from these few couple of instances, the general response I receive as a male ballet dancer is one of admiration, surprise (because not many men dance), and curiosity. My observation is that people are more interested in what a male ballet dancer does, rather than to judge them. I never felt hindered by stereotypes.
However, I do acknowledge that there is a general impression amongst the public that ballet is generally associated with a female figure- and I understand why. Many of ballet’s icons are women, and the image that comes to mind when one says the word “Ballet” usually involves a female lead in some way. In fact, the focus of ballet is usually on the leading ballerina! That is perhaps why people tend to associate ballet with women. So when I meet people who are curious to know what a male ballet dancer is like, I go on to describe how I need to be fit and strong because male dancers have the responsibility of lifting our dance partners at any given point in the choreography, regardless of how tired we are. Therefore, we need to have good stamina. We also need to execute high jumps and multiple turns and I am usually all too happy to oblige when my friends ask to see a ballet trick that only men can do because I am usually rewarded with a gasp on their faces after I fulfill their request.
Maisha: What do you feel are the obstacles for men or boys who would want to take up dance or ballet as a profession?
Timothy: For one, young boys will face teasing by their friends who aren’t mature enough to understand that ballet is not as effeminate as they think it is. However, we cannot blame young boys who think this way when they are more inclined to sports and see their sisters taking ballet, thus associating ballet with femininity. I have found that such childish thoughts tend to disappear as boys grow into men. Another obstacle could be parents who are afraid that their children will not be able to support themselves financially. This is especially relevant in Singapore where parents hope and expect their children to be well-educated and to go on to have stable and financially rewarding jobs.
Maisha: Gender roles in ballet have been very traditional but now that seems to be a positive shift and greater inclusivity. Do you agree with this and if so, what is helping to bring that shift? What more can be done?
Timothy: Gender roles in ballet have been and are still traditional, and they are still embraced by male and female ballet dancers regardless of what sexuality and gender they identify with. So with respect to your question, I believe you mean that there is a positive shift in the general impression of the male dancer. I agree that the male ballet dancer is getting more publicity and recognition, and I think that this is because male technique is exciting to watch when executed well. Given that ballet dancers’ technique levels have improved dramatically over the decades, there are more reasons to be excited about male dancers. I think asking the question of whether “more can be done” seems to imply that male ballet dancers have been marginalized and discriminated against – something I contest given that my personal experiences as well as my father’s was not one of discrimination. Instead of trying to find more things to improve on, I believe we should simply continue the focus on celebrating good dancers, be they male or female, which will in turn inspire men and women to pick up the profession.
Maisha: What can different aspects of society do to help break gender stereotypes so that each child can grow up to fulfill his or her best potential instead of succumbing to roles pre- cast for them by stereotypes and labelling?
Timothy: Stereotypes exist and will always exist as long as humanity continues, but I believe that the best way to reduce stereotypes is to be strong and defiant in the face of it. In other words, while stereotyping is a social phenomenon, the fight against stereotypes does not need to lie in actively trying to change society, but in training our young men and women to be resilient in the face of obstacles and to be confident in their actions. When our young people defy stereotypes and are strong in our own will, only then will people see that there is an alternative to the stereotypes they hold in their mind- and therein the change in mindset occurs. I would like to add that the fulfilling of each child’s best potential does not rely on a welfare society that determines what we think as the ‘right’ or ‘optimal’ conditions for them to grow in. Rather it depends on the ability of each child to fulfill his or her potential when they strive and push for what they want even when conditions are not ‘optimal’. A smooth sea never made a tough sailor. If we can’t persevere in the face of challenges, good can never become great.
Maisha: Thank you so much Timothy for speaking to our readers! What would be your final message to an aspiring ballet dancer?
Timothy: Don’t ever give up – anything worth doing is not easy. Don’t be afraid to dream too – the force of one’s will is a force to be reckoned with.