Dance to stay off the streets

To say that Ms Milah had a complicated childhood would be an understatement.

She ran away from home when she was 13 and joined a secret society two years later.

"Back then, I was very, very violent. Anyone in the secret societies would know me. It was rare to see an Indian girl," says Ms Milah, now 33 and a carpark attendant. She goes by just one name, as she was raised by her grandparents and does not know who her father is.

Aside from her day job, she also runs Plus Point, an informal hip-hop dance group she started two years ago to keep teens off the street by giving them a sense of belonging and family, as well as a healthy way to spend their time.

The group now has close to 30 members aged 16 to 23. Most of the them find out about her group through Facebook or by word of mouth.

They practise every weekday evening from 6.30pm until about 10 or 11pm at a badminton court near Milah's one-room flat in Ang Mo Kio or in a multi-purpose hall nearby.

Plus Point now performs for events such as birthday parties and Deepavali celebrations, and in September, the group came in fourth in TV channel Vasantham's Dhool dance contest.

Ms Milah - or Mel, as she is known to her dancers - started the group because of her love of dance, and also because she felt that she was in a unique position to help youngsters stay on the straight and narrow, and off the streets.

She says: "Sometimes, only a gangster can talk to a gangster. I tell them to study hard, I tell them what kind of a woman I was. I don't want them to be the same."

She has six daughters and a son with her ex-boyfriend, with whom she no longer has any contact. Her children are aged nine to 17. She left their father when she was 24, after enduring years of physical abuse.

Drug-related offences landed her in prison for the first time in 2004 for 10 months, and for a second time in 2008 for 18 months. While she was in jail, her children were either taken charge of by the Ministry of Social and Family Development or cared for by a friend. It was during her second jail term that she made the decision to change for the better.

She had been placed in isolation after she assaulted a fellow inmate.

She recalls: "One day, my son, who was 12, visited me in prison. He looked at me and said, 'Ma, promise me you won't do this anymore.'"

Her son's plea struck such a chord with her that after serving her sentence, she began to turn her life around. She worked odd jobs as a cashier and a cleaner to support her family.

Watching her interact with the dancers, it is clear that while she is a disciplinarian, they all adore her.

They call her "akka", which means "elder sister" in Tamil, and Ms Tiara Nithiya, 23, a carpark attendant who has been dancing with the group for over a year, says: "Everyone here is very close, it's really like a family."

While the group's star has been on the rise, it has not always been easy keeping the group together. During the interview, Milah points out a dancer in the group.

"His mother called me up last week after seeing my photo on Facebook," she says. She sports short cropped hair and a variety of piercings and tattoos, which she plans to remove by laser next year.

"I told her, 'Sister, I used to be like that but I'm not anymore.' Then I shared with her my story and after I talked to her for a while, she was okay with him coming."

Plus Point has also changed the life of dancers such as Mr Prem Kumar, 22, an odd job worker who is known among the group as Ahboi. "I used to be a very hot tempered fellow and got angry fast," he says.

His temper landed him in police lock-up eight to nine times a month, and even a stint in jail last year. But since joining the group, he has stayed out of trouble.

He says: "Mel will keep track of me. If she's bored, she calls me, asks what I am doing and where I am. If I'm feeling bad, she consoles me, talks to me.

"My life has really changed because of her. She has added colour to my life."