Male dancers are a special breed. They are marvelous with their energy, jumps, turns and do amazing lifts of their fellow female dancers. They are also more likely to muck around, get in trouble. How do boys grow up to be dancers? Surely, learning to dance ballet did not happen overnight for them. What was it like to be the absolute minority, to be in a vocation mostly overlooked as a “girl’s thing”?
We managed to chat about that with Zhao Jun, who very recently retired from stage as a First Artist from the Singapore Dance Theatre. He was an unlikely dancer, who eventually found his passion for dance. At this time of writing, he is about to leave Singapore for good to go back to China to start a new life post dance. This was written also as a tribute and to thank him for giving his best dance years to Singapore.
Conversations with Zhao Jun
How old were you when you first took a dance class? Most female dancers start at 3 years old. What was dancing like before Beijing Dance Academy?
Actually I never took any dance class before Beijing Dance Academy. Haha. I was 11 years at that time when I was accepted into Beijing Dance Academy.
What? Then how did you get into Beijing dance Academy?
(editorial note: Thousands of students of students from around China audition for Beijing Dance Academy each year, and at that time, only 15 boys and 15 girls are accepted into the ballet stream FOR EACH YEAR.)
My story is a little strange. I can honestly say that in the beginning, I didn’t like dance at all. I didn’t like to study and only liked to play games. My family was really worried about my future, and insisted that I learn a skill.
My cousin then was already in Beijing Dance Academy, so my family decided to send me there with her. I initially planned to audition for the Chinese Dance stream, but one of the ballet teachers there liked me, and persuaded my parents for me to learn ballet instead.
At that time in China, not many people knew or understood the difference between ballet and Chinese Dance. They were just happy for me to learn anything! Probably grateful that the ballet teacher liked me, they took her advice and happily switched me to ballet.
Of course, I still had to get through the auditions.
So that means that your family had already made plans to send you to Beijing Dance Academy even though you’ve never taken a dance class? How did you get through the rigorous auditions?
About 2 years before I was accepted/joined, my family took me to see my cousin’s teacher at the academy in Beijing. She assessed me and told us that I wasn’t flexible. I need to improve on my flexibility for me to get in.
My family tried to get me to go to a dance class but I ran away and skipped it. I really really really didn’t want to join that school. I was a boy and at 8 or 9 years old, I didn’t know men could dance! I came from a small city. I thought dancing was a girl’s job.
But somehow they had managed to make me stretch. I stretched my legs and arms and feet and everywhere else for many months before the audition.
What was the audition process like?
There were 4 rounds of auditions.
In the 1st round, the audition panel will start by do a check of the body. They will measure how long are your arms and legs, how tall you are (and how tall is your family to gauge your future height), the arch of your feet, how flexible you are, how high you can jump etc.
The 2nd: They test your reaction, how fast you can pick up the steps or how visual you are, and your musicality.
In the 3rd round, you have to dance. But because I didn’t know how to dance then, so I did some gymnastics exercises. And you’ll also have to sing, but just a little.
In the final round, you’ll have to pass a written exam.
So it must have been pretty amazing that you got through all the auditions. And so you then left home and family to go to boarding school for the next 6-7 years at a mere 11 years of age?
Yes. Same as Chen Wei. But my family forced me to go. They hoped I would take ballet seriously.
So, you guys – Chen Peng, Chen Wei and yourself were all up to no good in ballet school?
No. Chen Wei and I joined at the same time, but were in different classes. Chen Peng joined a year later. We weren’t close friends then. And they weren’t naughty in school.
Do share with us exactly how naughty you were in school.
I once broke into my teacher’s office, change my exam grades and ate my teacher’s food that was left on his desk. Then I jumped off the window and landed in a grand plie.
What? Were you caught?
Yes. I guess I shouldn’t have changed my grades to extremely high scores – it was too obvious. AND… maybe I shouldn’t have eaten his food too.
I constantly skipped class. Once, I disappeared from class for 22 days. I was out gaming. My teachers couldn’t find me. I got into a lot of trouble.
I guess it is hard for a young energetic boy to get used to the rigid, disciplined environment of vocational dance. You must have shown potential, otherwise they would have kicked you out already. How could you still get up to so much mischief, being in such a high pressure environment? I mean it was already so hard to get into Beijing Dance Academy…
Yes, it was quite hard to get in at that time (not sure about now). I guess at that young age, I didn’t fully understand deeply the opportunity I had.
Actually the training made me very stressed. It was so hard and tiring. And the environment was very harsh. (Maybe that was how I dealt with the stress).
Every teacher there has different ‘styles’ and ways of being harsh.
For females, maintaining a certain weight was very very very important. As my friend, Liu Xiao Mi (an ex dance colleague and a fellow Beijing Dance Academy graduate) will tell you. She never did quite feel “full” (or like she had eaten sufficiently) after every meal at the academy. Or rather, she is NOT ALLOWED to feel full. That is because every morning before ballet class, the teacher will do a weigh-in of every girl. If anyone puts on just a bit of weight, she wouldn’t be allowed to eat, she wouldn’t be allowed to take ballet class. She has to go running.
For us boys, in this aspect of weight, it was not as strict. But because we’re boys, the teacher will really punch and kick and doing something else to make you remember all the ballet training details. It felt like military training.
That sounds pretty violent – the way ballet was taught to boys…but you were STILL bold enough to skip school and do all that mischief! NOT SCARED AH?
Haha. Actually I was scared. But I also forgot everything when I wanted to be naughty. Hahaha.
(*speechless* …. boys will be boys)
Another way that it was harsh was that we were constantly physically exhausted from the long hours of training. We have to get up at 6 am every morning to do physical training exercises, not dance training. We had to run, jump, stretch etc. That was our “warm up”. Our day typically ends at 830 pm in the evening.
That sounds insane. What is a typical day of ballet training like at Beijing Dance Academy?
It starts at 6 am for Physical training, then ballet class, we have lunch break, then variation training, then technique class, then normal study (academia) followed by dinner.
After dinner, there is one more night training from 7pm to 830pm.
What is technique training and what is night training?
Technique training is a more focused training and practice for certain technique, for example a particular type of turns, depends on what the teacher feels we need.
The night training depends what’s teacher wants. Sometimes, it is just a regular ballet class. Sometimes, it is to work more on variations. Other times, it is just another session of technique training.
In one day we have 3 different classes of ballet. The regular 1.5 hours ballet class, the variation class and lastly the technique class.
Twice a week, we learn Chinese dance.
Twice a week, we learn Character dance.
In our 5th year, we have pas de duex class twice a week and an added contemporary class once a week.
No wonder all of you are so skinny. It sounds like you suffered a lot…很苦 (casual translation: experienced suffering)
Yes, once we were so exhausted, we couldn’t get up in time. My teacher made us run around the track for the rest of the day. We had to run 400圈. 1圈＝400 meters. (Approximately 99 miles or 160 km)
Then you all surely could not walk the next day. How did the teachers ensured everyone became flexible? Were there stretch classes or exercises to do? Or did students do their own stretching?
The teacher will stretch some of students who was not flexible. Like me. Haha.
But in the end you became flexible.
Noooooooo. I’m not flexible at all. Until now still. I should say sorry to all my teachers and school. [Sob]
HAHAHAHAHAHA (Well, we’ve all seen him dance in Singapore and HE IS FLEXIBLE. Just not up to his own professional standards.)
What are some of your favorite memories learning to dance as a boy? I’m sure you had some.
I remember as a young boy watching the Royal Ballet when they came to perform in Beijing. I think Chen Wei had a chance to perform with them at that time if I’m not wrong.
I was watching Carlos Acosta very closely during the performance. When he was launched into a grand pirouette, I saw him push himself far too much off his center with his back leg. I was thinking, uh oh, he is not going to make it…but then before my eyes, I saw him use his toes of his supporting/balancing foot to push himself back on to his center and completed his turns. I was shocked. I will never forget it.
Wow that is amazing and that left a good impression on you.
Yes, now that I’m looking back, all the memories were very fun in the school. I really miss that time.
So it really sounds like you had a complicated relationship with dance. It was torturous, so as a young boy, you hated it. It is more like you disliked the process of learning to dance, but not dance itself, otherwise you wouldn’t have progressed and been kicked out, or you would have dropped out. So, when did you start to really feel that you loved dance?
I don’t know quite know how to answer this question, because I have 3 stages of my dance life, Beijing, Hong Kong, then dancing as a professional in the Singapore Dance Theatre. All these 3 ‘parts’ made me who I am as a dancer today.
When I was young, I felt I didn’t like dancing at all. After graduating from Beijing Dance Academy, I furthered my ballet studies in Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, I actually felt that I liked classical ballet and I felt that I made a lot of sudden improvements there. My ballet technique suddenly became so much better than when I was in Beijing. Because of that, I started to love dancing variations. Then I also liked to do technique stuff.
I still felt that I don’t know how to dance, and what is dance exactly.
In the 3rd part, I joined Singapore Dance Theatre in 2005. At that time when I joined, SDT were dancing lots of contemporary pieces. I was in the ballet mode at that time, fresh from Hong Kong and so I didn’t enjoy dancing contemporary as much. To be honest, I didn’t feel so inspired dancing those pieces and so I reverted back to having a uninspired outlook on dance. I even got fat.
So how did you recover to be so slim?
Because of a Masterpiece season in 2011. I was casted in one piece WHICH I LOVE. But I needed to be topless to dance in that piece. And I heard that the choreographer is a very strict and serious person. I was so worried he will kick me out when he see how fat I was. I only had one month, so I lost as much weight as I could just so I could dance in that piece.
There were rumors that you would only eat an orange for the whole day.
I had 1 bowl of rice and 1 meat dish for the whole day and do a lot of exercises at the same time. I did this for 21 days.
That sounds like you loved dance LIKE A LOT to me! (For this dancer who insists that he wasn’t sure he loved dance for the most part of his dancing life.)
Okay, I know I said I have 3 parts of my dance life, but there is a 4th. A few years went by, around 2010? I started to like dance. Then I was crazy loved dance.
I think I’m quite extreme. If I don’t really like something, then I won’t do it. No one can push me. If I like something, I’ll get really into it.
So that’s what happened to me.
In a way, I always think that my dance career lasted 6 years. I was not 11 years a dancer. I was only a dancer for 6 years. I wasted a lot of time. If I had a chance to go back and start again, I think I would have taken my vocational training more seriously. I would increase my focus in every class.
Even until now (he retired from stage on 11th July 2016), I still have so many pieces that I want to dance, but I can’t because I’m not good enough.
Thanks for sharing… you are indeed very extreme. You were a naughty boy that learned to dance and matured into an artist.
Before I didn’t realize that dancing is so much fun. I couldn’t find any fun in dance. Maybe it was because of my age at that time? I only remembered loving to have fun and to be mischievous. I don’t think I took anything seriously.
My emotions can switch to “hate” to “love” in one second. In the beginning years as a professional dancer, I called my family everyday to tell them that I don’t think I like dancing, I want to stop and I want to go back to China. But suddenly when I love dance and when I’m getting more passionate about dance, my family wants me back in China.
End notes: Zhao jun retired from stage on the 11th of July 2016 and interviewed with us 5 days after. He leaves for China tomorrow as a retired dancer. But he’ll still take ballet class with Shanghai ballet companies and with other contemporary companies because he’s worried about getting fat. We wish him well and will keep in touch!