On most Wednesdays and Fridays, Mei Fei makes her way down to the open space below her HDB flat for 2 hours to practise. She dons a salwar-kameez, gets comfortable in an aramandi (half-squat) position and turns on her speaker. The sound of the mridangam reverberates through the space, and Mei Fei begins her repertoire of pieces to practise. The confused gaze from onlookers or the eyes of passers-by looking at her in awe does not faze her. Mei Fei is focused on one thing and one thing only – perfecting her craft of Bharatnatyam.
Meet Soo Mei Fei, the 25-year-old who first picked up Bharatnatyam, a form of Indian Classical Dance, as a hobby and who is now pursuing it as a career. To address the elephant in the room – yes, Mei Fei is of Chinese ethnicity, pursuing an art form deeply rooted in Indian culture.
I recall the first time I saw Mei Fei on social media – decked in a beautiful dance saree and performing a Bharatnatyam piece. I was immediately equal parts impressed and curious. As a former classical dancer myself, I knew the intricacies of Bharatnatyam and wondered what it would have been like for someone from a completely different culture to learn and appreciate the art form. As such, I reached out to Mei Fei to learn more about her journey!
Mei Fei’s first brush with Bharatnatyam was in secondary school. When it was time to choose a CCA, Mei Fei knew she wanted to try some form of dance. Having some experience with other mediums of expression, such as art classes and playing the electone, she wanted to try something different. As such, the 13-year-old did not think twice about tagging along with the rest of her friends who decided to join Indian Dance.
Indian Dance was a safe space for Mei Fei. Despite the fact that the dance form was rooted in a different culture from hers, it helped that most of the CCA was formed of non-Indian students, who were learning the dance form from scratch as well. Furthermore, the dancers dove head first into preparing for their SYF performance, which was where Mei Fei began to pick up some of the basic skills of the dance.
“Despite being introverted and shy, my focus was always just on getting the techniques right. We were always just so enthusiastic about performing,” said Mei Fei when asked if she ever felt nervous performing on stage, especially a dance form utterly new to her.
When it came to explaining to her other friends and family members what her CCA was, Mei Fei admitted that initially, those around her took some time to get used to the fact that she was in Indian Dance. “They would ask me if I was in International Dance, and I would say, no – Indian Dance”, said Mei Fei with a chuckle.
Over the years in the CCA, Indian Dance began to grow on Mei Fei. She found delight in the fact that dance was something that gets better with practice – and it helped that she found her community where she could practise as much as she needed, to perfect her steps. However, it was only during her second SYF that Mei Fei became more inquisitive about Indian Classical Dance in particular. Her school was performing the song ‘Bho Shambho’ – a mantra dedicated to Lord Shiva. The piece involved not just technical Bharatnatyam steps, but also the use of mudras and hastas (hand and body gestures) to tell the story of Lord Shiva.
It was this performance which made Mei Fei look up other renditions of ‘Bho Shambo’ online and learn the meaning of the lyrics and discover how Bharatnatyam accompanies the song. The ability to tell a story via dance and the added layer of Sanskrit lyricism piqued Mei Fei’s interest. As such, she continued Indian Dance in her Junior College years as well – in fact, the idea of no longer having a space to dance after graduating saddened Mei Fei and gave her all the more reason to be committed to performing well in her JC days.
After graduating, Mei Fei continued her education in LASALLE, pursuing a Fine Arts Degree. The transition from JC to University made her realise that she would miss Bharatnatyam too much, and she knew this was something she wanted to pursue seriously. Therefore, entering her new phase in life also lined up with her finally taking the leap of faith to explore Bharatnatyam seriously. She enrolled in Apsara Arts and never looked back.
Her 6 years of Indian Dance experience accelerated the initial months of learning. “My priority was getting the proper guidance and techniques but also, given that I had some experience and was willing to work hard, my teachers really pushed me to go to slightly more advanced classes”, said Mei Fei.
The thrill and exhilaration of learning something new, however, came with its fair share of challenges. For one, to bear the expenses of her dance classes, Mei Fei had to take on a part-time job on top of her university studies. Her parents wanted to instil a sense of independence in her and as such, allowed her to pursue her interests as long as she could support herself.
While Mei Fei initially questioned this and wished that her parents would be more supportive, in hindsight, she is grateful for being able to sustain herself. “It taught me to be resilient. When you work so hard to be able to afford dance class and practise dance, it made me value it a lot. And to me, I would never miss dance class because I knew how much money and time it took”, said Mei Fei.
Her unwavering love and passion for Bharatnatyam eventually culminated in her not just learning more about dance and sharpening her skill, but performing an Arangaetram. The word “arangetram” means “ascending the stage” and is a solo dance debut – it’s the first time a student performs a full concert by themselves, which lasts about 2 to 3 hours. It is considered to be the pinnacle of a dancer’s journey and ascertains the dancer’s competence as a Bharatnatyam dancer.
One of Mei Fei’s biggest challenges in her dancing career was preparing for her Arangaetram performance amidst COVID. Leading up to the big performance, Mei Fei found herself dealing with her own personal issues and under immense stress. However, it was amidst this where she found her most memorable rehearsal and performance on stage.
“I did not have time to practise for the entire week before the rehearsal, and I just hoped that my efforts from before would pull me through. My rehearsal ended up going okay, and that’s when I realised that there’s only so much you can practise and do, and sometimes you just have to let go”, said Mei Fei. It was then she realised how grateful she was to the art form for giving her a space to relieve her worries and learn to trust the process.
“The movements in Bharatanatyam are very structured, and the dance itself just gives me a form of stability. It is my solid anchor”, said Mei Fei.
Moving forward, Mei Fei has her eyes set on developing the education scene in the Bharatnatyam industry. As a dance teacher herself, educating primary school students, Mei Fei wants to concentrate on making sure students can take away more from Bhratnatyam than just dance.
“More than techniques, dance also involves so much character development,” says Mei Fei. Furthermore, even on the creative side, Mei Fei is looking to explore cross-discipline collaborations between Bhratnatyam and other forms of art like music. One example would be having a Bharatnatyam dance to the tunes of a pianist!
While big plans and endeavours await her, Mei Fei believes in dancing to the tune of her heart and following where the path takes her. For an art form that has shaped her character, we cannot wait to see what she does to continue shaping the scene and pushing boundaries.
Visuals courtesy of Soo Mei Fei and Manu Ignatius.