Features, Highlights

Meet Sharon Liew, who runs an inclusive dance school

Sharon Liew runs an inclusive dance school

When Sharon Liew embarked on a career in dance in the 1990s, inclusive dance—that is, persons with disabilities (PWDs) dancing alongside persons without disabilities­—was unheard of.

Into her third decade of teaching community dance classes, and running a private dance school that supports inclusive dance, she credits her victories in the dance industry, in particular in inclusive dance, to God. “My dance journey is God-led. I wouldn’t say I was or am the best dancer. But God gave me a purpose in life with dance,” Sharon, a member of Wesley Methodist Church, says.

Sharon, 51, studied dance in the UK at the London College of Dance/ University of Buckingham, supported by a scholarship from the National Arts Council, Lee Foundation and Shaw Foundation after her A-levels. Upon returning to Singapore, she landed a job with the People’s Association where she brought dance education to the heartlands, a role she still plays today.

At the same time, she started a dance school company, Dance Spectrum International (DSI) so that her dancers could take on private performance engagements.

First steps in teaching children with disabilities

In 2003, DSI held a fund-raising concert in support of the Autism Resource Centre (ARC), the pre-cursor of Pathlight School and the first autism-focused school in Singapore.

The fund-raising concert introduced her to a community of parents with autistic children. Soon, Sharon found herself volunteering at ARC, teaching dance to a select group of students in an after-school programme, so that these students could improve in their physical coordination and artistic expression.

Pathlight School officially began in 2004, and DSI and Pathlight worked towards its first collaborative performance in 2006. This was a milestone for DSI in inclusive dance.

After volunteering and then working as the dance instructor for Pathlight’s Dance Talent CCA for 10 years, Sharon tendered her resignation to focus on DSI. Several students from Pathlight continued to take lessons at her school.

One such student is Alief Fiqhry Ayob, 23, who has danced with DSI since 2017. Alief, who works full time at Professor Brawn Cafe as service staff, says dancing with DSI “feels like a family with all my friends”.

Nathan Tan, 16, another dance student who has autism, says, “It takes a lot of hard work and many hours of practice to achieve a beautiful and flawless performance. But performing well gives me joy and satisfaction.”

One of the younger dance students is 9-year-old Gideon Kwek, who learns tap, jazz and ballet at DSI. Gideon, who is autistic, is following the footsteps of his three older siblings, who are also on the autism spectrum and have been students at DSI at various stages of their schooling life.

Their mother, Michelle Kwek, says, “Dance is like therapy for them.”

“Most children on the autism spectrum struggle with movement and coordination. Poor posture and muscle tone are often the reasons behind the clumsy gait and tendency to fall or trip over things. Dancing helps to improve the core muscles and train coordination of movement with rhythm of music. The rigours of dance training also help develop executive functioning—a set of mental skills that include working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control,” adds Michelle, who heard about DSI through word of mouth.

Another dancer, Luo Mang, 16, is a ballet dancer with DSI. Although she is for the most part non-verbal, her expression in dance is “exceptional” according to Sharon.

Luo Mang’s mother, Xu Zeying, told Methodist Message, “Luo Mang was diagnosed with autism when she was four. We tried many different therapies and classes to encourage as normal a lifestyle as possible but had little success except for dance and music. She started dancing at the age of 8 and loves performing.”

It was after watching DSI perform at the Purple Parade for many years, that Xu decided to send Luo Mang to Sharon’s school in 2019. “I saw Sharon work with autistic children and was impressed with the high standard of dance they brought to the stage. The performances included children of all abilities and provided the opportunity to demonstrate what they are capable of and show the world that they are more than their diagnosis. This brings dignity to every single performer.”

DSI currently has eight students who have disabilities enrolled, four of whom have been diagnosed to be on the autism spectrum. The school has consistently taken part in Purple Parade, Singapore’s largest movement to support inclusion and celebrate abilities of persons with disabilities.

Inclusivity takes a village

But what makes ‘inclusive dance’ work? Sharon says that building an inclusive culture in DSI was made possible because of the support from her non-disabled dancers and their parents.

“It is their willingness to embrace dancers with disabilities that makes this work,” says Sharon.

Ruth Leong, whose children, Elyse, age 10, and Evan, age 8, are learning to dance at DSI, said, “Dancing alongside peers with special needs has enriched my children’s learning experience. It has helped them appreciate that everyone learns differently, and has taught them to cheer their peers on and celebrate their progress. I’m grateful that both my children have had this opportunity through their classes with Dance Spectrum International.”

In addition, it is the community of praying parents and the close-knit ties that have helped the school thrive.

“It’s about showing love to them. These kids [with disabilities] would not come back and dance if they didn’t like the environment,” Sharon said.

Praising Him with dance

Sharon, who is a member of Wesley Methodist Church, became a Christian at age 13.

“Sometimes it is a Bible verse or a song that inspires me, and that translates into choreography and performance. I’ve tried to rely on God to lead me in directing the school.”

Sharon, who is an alum of Methodist Girls’ School, says, “In a way, I do see that God has allowed me to live out my school motto, ‘To Master, To Grow, To Serve’ as a dance teacher. To Master my craft, to Grow in love for others, and to Serve the community.”

But running the dance school has been challenging at times. Despite this, Sharon says God is always there guiding her. “God’s word keeps me grounded, and helps me to persevere. One of my favourite verses is Isaiah 40:31, “They shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.”

Sharon wants to continue creating awareness for inclusive dance outside their immediate community. Her dream? “I want to grow the next generation of dancers who have worked with people with disabilities and build a deeper understanding between them,” Sharon said.

Sharon Liew
Sharon Liew
After a performance
Alief (left) and Nathan (right), in black
Luo Mang

Lianne Ong is the Editor of Methodist Message. / Photos courtesy of Sharon Liew with studio photos by Bernard Teo