The dancing doctor and his motley crew of proud pioneers

This story was first published in The Straits Times on April 5, 2015

Every Sunday morning, the Curtin University campus in Jalan Rajah plays host to a very special teacher. Cardiologist Tan Yong Seng's classes combine music and medicine, two of his biggest passions. He gives health talks, followed by exercise and song-and-dance sessions.

His 40 or so "students" are special too. Most are proud members of the pioneer generation and call themselves the Whampoa iSing group.

Known affectionately as the "dancing doctor", Dr Tan, 55, has been a grassroots leader for a decade and chairs the Whampoa Active Ageing Committee.

His classes began in 2008 at the Whampoa Community Club. He is using a Curtin classroom while the CC is being renovated.

One recent Sunday, the sessions began on an inspiring note - on how living to 100 can be a blessing, if we remain mentally connected and physically fit. "This South African lady celebrated her 100th birthday by jumping out of a plane with an instructor," says Dr Tan, flashing a picture on his Powerpoint slide.

"How many 10 years do we want to live?" he asks.

"Ten!" some voices shout back in unison. Many here want to celebrate their 100th birthdays.

Then the classroom fills with music, song and dance. The motley crew sing in English, Mandarin, Cantonese, Hokkien, Malay and Tamil, following lyrics flashed on a giant screen.

Later it's time to show off cha-cha-cha and rock 'n' roll moves.

Retired teacher Woo Oi Leng, 68, is a regular at the sessions which can stretch to four hours.

"I come here for the fellowship, for the company of other seniors," says the widowed mother of three who lives nearby. She went on vacation recently and missed two classes. Friends asked where she was. "They care for me, they miss me when I am not around. It makes me happy."

Like her, most of the others live nearby. But some, like retiree Aw Chong Kway, make a longer trek.

"The sessions make me laugh, they train my mind and they help strengthen my muscles," says Mr Aw, 79, who drives down every Sunday from Yio Chu Kang. "I could not find anything similar near where I live."

Dr Tan, who has a grown-up daughter, believes one can welcome old age rather than be fearful of it.

"I use this platform to teach, to learn to share. As we grow older, our bodies naturally become stiffer. So we dance, we do simple exercises. We want seniors to be healthy and active throughout their lives," says Dr Tan, who runs his own clinic at Gleneagles Medical Centre.

One day a couple of years ago, one of the regular attendees brought along her recently widowed octogenarian mother, who was lonely and depressed.

To her great surprise, the older woman met one of her childhood friends at the session. "They were meeting after decades and shared so many memories together," says Dr Tan.

The incident gave him the idea to use the community's annual year-end carnival as a platform for residents to share their favourite Whampoa memories.

"It's a great hit with seniors. It makes them feel connected and happy. I, too, learn a lot from them."

This story was first published in The Straits Times on April 5, 2015

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