Dancing her way to the top

Sixteen-year-old Deborah Loh says ballet training can be stressful, but loves the "liberating" feeling of being on stage.
Sixteen-year-old Deborah Loh says ballet training can be stressful, but loves the "liberating" feeling of being on stage.PHOTO: CMG

Ballet student Deborah Loh beat more than 80 competitors to win the Singapore Grand Award at the first International Ballet Grand Prix Singapore

Young ballerina Deborah Loh, 16, danced her way to victory at an international ballet competition in Singapore last weekend.

Her pirouettes and graceful high-leg extensions may seem effortless, but they belie a steely will to persevere in the face of blisters, pulled muscles and emotional lows.

"Rehearsing for competitions is very painful," says Deborah, who took part in the inaugural International Ballet Grand Prix Singapore (IBGPS), which is open to ballet dancers aged seven to 18.

"I get a lot of injuries from ballet. Most of the time, I will 'jian chi' ('persevere' in Mandarin). Now, I am slightly more careful and I won't push myself too hard when I know I might get injured."

Last Sunday, the Singapore Ballet Academy student, who also takes dance lessons at the School of the Arts (Sota), pipped more than 80 dancers to the IBGPS Singapore Grand Award - the prize given to the top Singaporean participant. She also won a scholarship to a programme at the National Theatre Ballet School in Australia.

Deborah, who wants to get into a dance school in Australia or New Zealand one day, loves the "liberating" feeling of being on stage, but adds that ballet training can be stressful.

The petite dancer, who frames her remarks thoughtfully, wishes more people would ask this question: "How is ballet emotionally and psychologically draining, and what can be done to fix that?"

She says: "You are looking at yourself in the mirror every single time you go for class, correcting every single bit of your body and technique to make it look perfect. But the majority of the time, it is not perfect.

"For me, at least, there's a lot of pressure to look like a dancer. You have to be lean and tall. You have to have a nice arch in your feet, hyperextension and lean muscles... I usually feel I don't have any of that."

But she keeps at it because of the values her mother instilled in her - "to do something to the best of my ability and to keep trying", says Deborah.

When she was three, her mother enrolled her in ballet lessons at the neighbourhood community club.

But her main sport during her primary-school years was rhythmic gymnastics and her focus shifted to ballet only after she joined Sota.

Deborah's mother Elfin Loh, 50, is the founder of childcare centre Smart Kids Educare, which is now helmed by her husband.

Supporting her only child's ballet pursuits has not been cheap. Lessons at the Singapore Ballet Academy cost more than $900 each 10-week term and a single overseas competition can set Mrs Loh back by more than $2,000 in participation fees, plane tickets, accommodation and costumes.

There are other expenses: physiotherapy and professional massages, and sessions with a chiropractor after Deborah injured her tail bone seven years ago - the result of an ill-timed dive into a beanbag at a friend's house.

Mrs Loh says: "Despite all the pain and complaints, she's actually pretty good at it (ballet). I will support her as much as I can."

Deborah, who dreams of playing Odile, the black swan antagonist in Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, looks up to international icons such as Ukrainian ballerina Iana Salenko and Svetlana Zakharova from Russia.

Since last year, she has scooped up prizes at competitions such as the Masterpiece International Ballet Competition, World Ballet Grand Prix Singapore and Asian Grand Prix Regional (Singapore).

But there were some early bumps in the road. She recalls one unhappy episode during the Asian Grand Prix in Hong Kong two years ago, where she made the mistake of watching the other dancers before it was her turn to perform.

"There were people who messed up on stage and they fell. I think it affected me and I tripped and stumbled too," says Deborah.

In August, she will compete in the Asian Grand Prix again in Hong Kong - this time, in the finals.

"She works from failure to failure," says Ms Lee Pei Nee, 38, Deborah's teacher at the Singapore Ballet Academy. "Last time, when she went for competitions, she didn't get through to the finals. I was a bit concerned - I thought she might lose confidence and quit ballet. But to my surprise, these 'failures' made her a stronger dancer."

Deborah feels she has become a more confident dancer over the years. Asked what advice she would give her younger self, she says: "Don't be too hard on yourself because improvement may be small. You may not see any improvement, but it's there."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 22, 2019, with the headline 'Dancing her way to the top'. Print Edition | Subscribe