Where does the name “Skydancer” come from?
Skydancer is a term used to describe the female spirit present in Buddhist practices, the dakini. A dear friend who truly practices Buddhism nicknamed me it one day, due to my energy and force as a person and as a dancer, and I’ve adopted it as the name of my personal dancer brand.
What is your real name and what do you prefer to be called?
My name is Melissa Wong, often shortened to Mel. I’m happy to be called Mel or Skydancer!
When did you start dance lessons, what forms did you study and how long did you train?
I’ve been fascinated with movement all my life. As a young child I would accompany my mother to the dance classes and aerobics classes she taught at the local dance studio, joining in whenever my little legs would let me! When I developed more awareness I became obsessed with Michael Jackson, and would devote hours to learning his choreography and performing it. I loved just dancing and moving around. I didn’t have any formal ‘lessons’, but I had lots of exposure to dance throughout Primary and Comprehensive School and would take classes in the after-school clubs as well as dance via the Physical Education curriculum. My schools were very focused on culture and the arts, and in addition to regular dance performances I also got to learn and play the clarinet in the school orchestra and developed my singing voice. The style was mostly jazz and modern, but occasionally a bit of ballet technique would be thrown in. When I was 16 I auditioned for a Performing Arts course at my local college, which was when I got the chance to explore different dance movement languages further. In addition to more jazz we would explore contemporary movement and world dance forms. My aim was to graduate then move to London to find work as a dancer/singer in Musical Theatre (Andrew Lloyd Weber’s ‘Cats’ and ‘Phantom of the Opera’ were my dream musicals).
Who was your biggest supporter of you being a dancer when you were a child?
My mother encouraged my love of dance, sitting my down to watch dance films like The Turning Point, Staying Alive and Flashdance as a youngster. She also gave me a good education in watching classical ballet, and from a very young age I would not just watch but study the performances of dancers like Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Sylvie Guillem and Gelsey Kirkland. Despite fostering my love for it my mother simply wouldn’t allow me to take formal classical ballet classes, for reasons that I will never know why. So as much as she was a supporter and would come to watch all my performances, she was also the main obstacle to a formal dance education.
When you reached adult age, what did you do to make a living for yourself?
I have been supporting myself financially since starting college. My mother died from Cervical Cancer when I was 15, and a year later I had to leave my family home. My first job was in a Pizza Hut! But as I grew older and life unravelled I worked as a qualified accountant and slowly started to build up freelance creative copywriting work. Freelance work is more flexible and it means that I can arrange my working day around my training schedule, rather than the other way around.
Where did the dancing go?
I became quite ill after leaving college, my mental health had seriously declined and I was not in a good place. I was diagnosed and underwent treatment for Manic Depression (Biplolar Disorder Type I), which affected my physical body too. By the time I had recovered I convinced myself that I was too old and out of shape to live the linear dance career path that I had hoped for. I was nineteen at the time.
You are looking for contributions to further your dance studies. What is your financial goal and how much have you been able to raise so far?
My financial goal is to raise the full amount of the course fees for the Diploma in Dance Studies at Trinity Laban, a total of £13,000. But I’m not expecting fundraising alone to generate that amount for me! So far I have raised just over £400.
You’re not the “approved” dancer size. You are bigger and according to that industry, you are too old. What say you to these statements?
Firstly I don’t believe that there is such a thing as an approved size for a dancer, nor is there a right age. I have a different physical structure to the typical female body seen in professional classical ballet, but it doesn’t mean my proficiency for the technique or my facility as a classical performer is any less. I possess the strength, power and movement quality more commonly seen in the male classical dancer, due largely to my varied background in movement disciplines (I was also a member of my local Junior Athletics team and have been training in martial arts since my late teens), but I firmly believe there is still room for me to perform classical technique at a professional standard. Contemporary dance appreciates different bodies and human forms, those elitist barriers aren’t as apparent as they are in classical ballet. To someone who says my shoulders are too broad for ballet, I would ask them why. To someone who says I am too heavy to be lifted, I would say that I don’t want to be lifted anyway. Yes, classical ballet needs to continue tradition but it also needs to diversify and open its arms to the art form being danced in a different way to ensure that it stays relevant and current.
What do you say to the people that think you have a lot of nerve asking people for money so you can further enhance your dancing skills?
I would agree with them! It does take a lot of nerve to put hands up and say I need help and support with this! I have taken care of myself since my mother died, working to fund my way through my martial arts training and for the past 3 years in dance training and it’s not easy to admit that I can’t do this alone. The course that I am applying for, which will give me the best opportunity to develop my skills as a dancer and dance maker, has no government support or funding. This means that I am not eligible for the usual student loans and grants that most other students can expect to receive, and which I actually contribute to as a UK taxpayer! My savings and any income I generate at present goes into keeping up the training that I am able to do, but open classes simply aren’t developing me to the level that I need to be at in order to perform professionally and choreograph professional works. And this isn’t just an investment in my training as a dancer, it’s also an investment in a creative, ambitious and dedicated individual who wants to change the landscape of dance in the UK and create more opportunities for those who are ‘different’ to have a professional career.
Besides fundraising on the internet, what other plans to you have to generate the funds needed for school?
I am still working as a freelance copywriter, and am planning to continue this whilst I study. To try and raise the initial funds and financial support I need I am also offering a skill-swap for sponsorship from sole traders, businesses and organisations. I am prepared to offer my time, creativity and writing skills to produce bespoke packages of promotional material and online content in exchange for a financial donation. I am also in the process of developing a dance blog I contribute to into a fully-working online dance magazine with a business partner, and we hope to generate advertising revenue and monetize the site so it provides a small but steady income. On the short-term side of things I have teamed up with a friend and fellow Big Ballet UK member, Raj Parmer, to deliver a ‘Bollywood Ballet’ workshop here in Sheffield in August. And it goes without saying that I have been writing to numerous UK trusts and charities in the hope that they will have small pots of funding that they could allocate to me.
What does your family think of your aspirations?
My remaining family consists of a brother and estranged half-brother. My brother isn’t really interested in dance, so my aspirations have little relevance to him. My friends are very supportive, particularly those who are already working as a professional dancers and they believe that I will be able to get to school and pursue my passion.
Mixed martial arts? We saw a little blurb where you talked about this. You also mentioned that some people think girls shouldn’t fight. What do you think about that opinion?
Mixed Martial Arts is the competitive side of the martial art forms that I have trained in. When I turned my back on dance I increased my interest in kickboxing and Thai boxing, because it was physical and I could pour all my anger and bitter resentment into becoming a strong and dangerous ‘machine’. I drifted in and out of a few clubs, never really finding the right kind of training environment since it was hard to be taken seriously as a female with professional fighting aspirations. I found my former coach, Mark Hayes, in my early twenties and stayed with him for 7 years. The arts that I trained in and studied include the aforementioned striking, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (in which I hold a Blue Belt), Kali/Eskrima, Boxing technique and the Jun Fan Jeet Kune Do system and philosophy that was developed by Bruce Lee himself. In addition to competing in the cage as a Semi-Pro MMA fighter, I also competed in and won titles and tournaments in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, K1 and Stickfighting.
Personally I find individuals who say ‘girls shouldn’t fight’ are just as narrow-minded as those Artistic Directors and choreographers who fetishise the petite female body. If an individual, irrespective of age, gender or race, puts themselves forward with the ambition of developing and achieving something (whether that be in the cage, ring or on the stage) they should be respected and encouraged. It takes a brave person to have faith in someone different, but those of us who are different often have the guts to change things for the better.
Is mixed martial arts competition something that you are doing now?
After I made the return to dance in 2011 and got more invested in classical ballet training I had to make the choice between training and fighting or training and dancing. I chose training and dancing, so I no longer compete or train in the heavier martial arts forms (I still keep up Kali technique at home)
How does that mesh or relate to dance?
I take my movement very seriously, whether that’s moving as a martial artist or moving as a dancer. I have trained and conditioned myself for a gruelling physical sport, and I have been able to easily apply that to dance. When I say that I am dedicated to my art I mean that everything from the food that I eat, the time of day I eat it at, the workout programmes I follow and my Yoga and Pilates practice is designed to support me in achieving my ambition. Just as I trained and developed myself into the only female fighter at Sheffield Martial Arts Centre I am also training and developing myself into a new type of Dance Artist.
Let’s talk about Big Ballet. What was the most powerful moment for you as a dancer during your experience with that program?
My experience of Big Ballet was largely a negative one. Unfortunately I had the impression that I was signing up for a genuine training and performance opportunity. The reality was very different from my expectations, and it was hard to reconcile the two. I was giving up a lot to take part in the series, including cutting back on the number of classes I was taking in Sheffield and missing out on time with my peers at the dance school, but as much as I felt like giving up I’m glad I stuck with it. The most powerful moment was actually the realisation that I need to carve out my own path as a dancer, because I have a different quality. I don’t fit in any boxes, whether that be the petite box or the fat box. I need to create the opportunity that I was looking for myself, which I am trying to do by pursuing advanced training.
What did your participation in the auditions and the actual program and performance do for you as a woman, dancer and human being?
Although I don’t want to crush any illusions that the final show may have produced, if anything taking part in Big Ballet sent my mental and physical health into a very low and dark place. I had a hard time adjusting to the environment that was being created in the studio with Monica and my fellow dancers. We weren’t given a proper training schedule, the basic 90 minute class that all dancers need to perform and dance properly was missing for most of the time and I felt that my technique really began to suffer. I was also very aware that to Monica and Wayne I was just a ‘plus-sized amateur’, not someone with an extensive background and achievements in movement practices. My natural qualities including elevation, balance, flexibility and dynamism weren’t being explored and developed, which was what I had hoped for when I signed up and auditioned for the programme. I guess I was hoping for so much more, but going through the process has certainly made me stronger and more confident as a different type of female dancer. My aims for going to school and studying dance for a year are to develop my technical performance and choreographic abilities, and when I graduate I will be in a stronger position to start making my own work. I would like to continue auditioning for freelance dance jobs that I can fit in around my practical studies, and will be making connections within the dance industry here in the UK and hopefully in Europe. I can’t say what my choreography will look like yet, since I’ve only just started to explore it, but it is very influenced by William Forsythe, Jiri Kylian and most recently Kenneth Tindall, so I am hopeful that it will be beautiful, emotionally intelligent and engaging. I would like to combine my knowledge of eastern martial arts and weaponry with classical ballet technique, and present it in a Dance Theatre format. I want what I create and dance to say something, just as I do with my writing, and when I get the chance I will work hard to create it. Long-term I would love to develop my own company of different dancers, presenting both men and women as equally strong and vulnerable, and open out the work to disabled dancers and those with a natural talent for emotive, boundary-pushing dance who don’t fit the “given mold” of a dancer’s body. It’s also an ambition of mine to one day take my company back to my hometown of Bridgend, South Wales to provide the next generation of dancers with the opportunities and support that I wasn’t given.
Terpsichore (Dance Blog): http://www.jelterps.blogspot.co.uk/
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