A very important woman in my life passed away last week. Lee Lee Lan (born Tan Lee Lan) was my teacher and principal, but that description alone seems inadequate to describe her influence. Though, as far as former students go, I feel hesitant to claim such an honour.
After all, her decades-long list of students includes the country’s most prominent artists and dance teachers, along with Malaysians who have made a name for themselves on Broadway and the West End as well as with professional dance companies around the world.
All came through the doors of the Federal Academy of Ballet (FAB) at some point. From its inception in 1967, Lee steadily brought ballet to the Malaysian public, birthing the industry and scene we know today.
Wisma FAB in Petaling Jaya’s Section 14 was the hub where all aspiring ballerinas and dancers gathered from across the country. On the top floor was the Fonteyn Studio, a black-box style theatre that existed before such venues became trendy and that saw a revolving roster of globally recognised performers and teachers put on shows and run masterclasses. It was also a place where teachers were trained and dance talents were nurtured, where they showcased their latest choreography and experimental works.
Much has been said about Lee’s personal accomplishments and legacy, which include many firsts — she was the first Asian examiner appointed by UK-based Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing, the founding president of the Dance Society of Malaysia and vice-president of the World Dance Alliance at one point. Artistically, her 1981 interpretation of a “Malay ballet” titled Soraya is cemented in Malaysian dance history, a libretto that attempted to incorporate local traditional dance elements into a ballet performance for the first time.
The list goes on. For a few years in the mid-1990s to the turn of the millennium, I was one of the girls in Mrs Lee’s Saturday afternoon class in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur. How ignorant we were of the privilege! We were not a class known for our ballet prowess — or discipline, for that matter — being more occupied with Britpop, Sweet Valley High novels and trips to McDonald’s for shakes and fries just before class. We certainly created a bit of a reputation for being that group of Mrs Lee’s girls.
Still, she was strict, even if we were told by many that she was soft on us. You would have heard the screams from outside. “Chin up!”, “Imagine you’re a rocket”, or “Think of a clothes hanger pulling you up”, as she would tell my friend Sherrie. Occasionally, she would put a banknote between our thighs. We were not to let it fall to the ground.
She was tireless, her expressive eyes always piercing with intent. When she got into yoga — again, long before it became popular — she would show her nimble stretches and urge us to follow suit. When I took up modern dance and Jazz, she introduced me to the fun and sass of dancing, and I learnt to mimic her infectious energy and shed any self-consciousness.
In between the drills, however, she would share stories from her wealth of experiences, such as from her stint at the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance in New York, or her various students’ accomplishments, throwing in some life lessons and musings along the way. I relished these words of wisdom.
Having been born with flat feet, I was unfortunately not cut out for the world of ballet, and that often made me feel inferior and frustrated in class. Mrs Lee walked up to me once and said, “Margot Fonteyn was known for not having the best footwork, but she dazzled everyone with her expression”, then she touched my chin and winked.
I took this to heart. I consider it my reward when in one of my final exams, I got the examiner’s written comment of “very good expression”, and a mark that earned me a conspiratorial whisper of “you did so well”, and a proud smile from my teacher. It meant more to me than the results itself.
Another privilege of being one of Mrs Lee’s girls was the opportunity to perform for kings and queens, princesses and ministers, and to see the world through the various cultural dance festivals she brought us to. These travels were most memorable.
We danced at midnight on the seafront during a summer festival near the Pyrenees mountains. In the town square in Costa Rica, the pakciks from the Malaysia Airlines traditional music band, who we often travelled with, sang inappropriate pantuns to an unknowing audience while we tried not to laugh. We paraded down slippery cobblestone streets in an ancient town in Spain while performing the Piring and Datun Julud, before everyone slipped and fell in turn, even Mrs Lee!
Through it all, the leader of our troop would march ahead in her typically quick strides, while we giggled and chattered as teenagers do behind. While on the road Mrs. Lee became our caregiver, second mother and chaperone, keeping the boys at bay.
In hindsight, she was also our role model. We learnt how to navigate the world with confidence, and also how to apply eyeliner — it has to be further away from your eyes to accentuate them, she would say. We looked quite ridiculous, I must admit.
As my friend Regine shared, she learnt the art of ‘winging it’ from Mrs. Lee. There were valuable lessons on how to adapt and maximise our resources, to play to our strengths and go with the flow in the big bad world.
You’d find us rehearsing on the side of the road, in airports, while waiting for the bus at the hotel lobby and along corridors backstage. We saw and experienced so much. It was really the adventure of a lifetime for a group of young people.
On my last trip in 2002 to the Global Dance Alliance festival in Düsseldorf, Germany, a prominent male dance professional came up to Mrs Lee and said, “It’s all very pretty, but you do know that choreography is not just circles and lines?” He wasn’t wrong, but my teacher was not to be intimidated. Complete with a signature stare, she replied, “Yes, but this is not about choreography, but a cultural showcase.”
I realise how fortuitous we were to have had Mrs Lee in our lives during the most formative years of womanhood. And while I was marginally aware that by the time we knew her, many had begun to call time on her career, as new teachers, schools and trends had sprung up, but no one has since come close to her accomplishments, entrepreneurial talent and pure guts.
Most of us no longer dance, but I believe we invariably carry the one key ballet lesson: chin up, stand tall and smile, come what may. Thank you, Mrs Lee, for the love of dance and the lessons of a lifetime.
This article first appeared on May 23, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.