A ballerina's journey

“Straighten your back, point your toes, turn your heels outwards, long and beautifully…” these phrases floated over staccato piano music as young ballerinas assumed positions under the guidance of their teachers. 

Ye Pick Lian, teacher and mentor,
 guiding her teenage students in a class
As teenage students of JB Ballet Academy stretch their supple bodies and point their toes in a polished pose, I hear the students’ collective whine in mock protest as the teacher instructed, “Hold that pose!”

I’m at the academy to meet with founder and principal, Ye Pick Lian, who celebrates 40 years as a professional ballet teacher and was mentor to ballerinas who have successfully qualified as Certified Ballet Teaching Studies (CBTS) teachers under the Royal Academy of Dance (RAD). While she chatted with students and parents before meeting me, I overhear them addressing her respectfully as, Principal Ye, Teacher Ye or Miss Ye.

Early Challenges

“I’ve been a ballerina for half of my life,” said Ye as she reminisces on her ballet journey here.  Born in post-war Taiwan, her parents lived a frugal life for Ye to achieve her dream in dancing as a career.  A graduate of the National Taiwan University of Arts, Ye met and married her Malaysian husband in Taiwan.

Ye Pick Lian [Left] teaching a class of young students
In 1976 Ye returned with her husband to his hometown in Kluang, Johor, where his family had a business as egg wholesalers.  She remembers going through culture shock as she adapted to the local lifestyle. 

She learnt to hand-wash clothes and how homemade starch was used in the final rinse but recalls with a shudder, that slaughtering chickens was simply distressing. While conducting her duties as an obedient daughter-in-law, Ye also helped out in the family business.

Then she met Ng Siew Fong of Harmony Academy of Ballet in Petaling Jaya, who helped her get certified by the RAD to teach.  While she taught Mandarin at a local secondary school, Ye started Kluang’s first ballet academy.  

She also opened an academy in Batu Pahat and had students at centres under the Yamaha Music School in Yong Peng, Muar and Segamat.  Ye kept a hectic schedule, shuttling between each town for ballet lessons and to save time, she used to eat takeaway chicken rice on the go.  She soon became renowned as the town’s ballet teacher. 

Personal Sacrifices

After eight years teaching some 2,000 students in ballet, social and modern dance classes, Ye decided to give up travelling to teach in various towns and focus solely on teaching ballet.  But for a good volume of students, she had to move to the city. 

Young students in a class with Ye Pick Lian [Right]
Ye then met Tan Lay Tee of Lay Tee Ballet School in JB and started to work with her.  While this opened a new horizon for her in the city, her husband opposed it and gave her the ultimatum to choose between ballet and their marriage.  To develop her career, she divorced and moved to JB with her two children.

“I’m a good mother but not a good wife,” confides Ye without a trace of bitterness in her voice.  She acknowledged that it was her decision to focus on her career and have an independent income.

When Tan migrated to New Zealand, Ye took over her school and rebranded it, JB Ballet Academy in 1990. 

Ye Pick Lian with some of her student graduates
with their Grade 8 certificates
Beginning with only 76 students, Ye expanded the studio to two floors for more classes. From one outlet in Taman Pelangi, the academy developed into three, with branches in Taman Johor Jaya (1993) and Taman Ungku Tun Aminah (1996). 

The eight students who started with her at Pre-Primary level, went on to Vocation and Advance before being mentored and certified by RAD as CBTS teachers.  While most ballet students also graduated as doctors, lawyers and accountants, these ballerinas followed in Ye’s footsteps and opened their own dance academies.

“Now my students are my teachers who teach me new things happening in the dance world,” says Ye, her voice brimming with pride.  She confides that while she is thankful for the strong support and good rapport with her graduate students, there was one incident that has left her heartbroken. 

It happened five years ago that she had the opportunity for a joint-venture with a former student to start a ballet academy in Kluang.  However, unknown to her, the former student-business partner had opened her own academy, taken over all their students and left Ye an empty studio.  To make things worse, Ye also discovered that she had been removed from RAD records as mentor to this student.

Not wishing to dwell on the past, Ye confides that this experience made her stronger and wiser as an individual and mentor.

Sweet Success

With her long hair twisted in a neat bun, Ye still looks poised and elegant at 64.  Seated with her arms and feet gracefully folded, she portrays a chic and confident image.  In spite of her advancing age, Ye, now a grandmother of five, took up yoga 10 years ago.

Students of JB Ballet Academy holds the record for the
"Most Number of Ballerinas Standing En Pointe" in the
Malaysia Book of Records
“In my 40 years as a ballerina, I have no regrets,” said Ye before sharing that she has passed the mantle of the dance academy to her daughter, Julia Lee, a RAD qualified CBTS teacher. 

“My time was indeed well-spent, teaching my protégés from juniors to professionals,” Ye added with a winsome smile.

Among her former students in the current dance arena are Elaine Ng Xinying of the National Academy of Arts, Culture and Heritage (Aswara) and renowned dancer and choreographer, Raymond Liew Jin Pin.

Smiling, Ye fondly remembers a special student with hearing and learning disabilities.  At first, she was shy and quiet but through Ye’s gentle guidance, she blossomed with grace and confidence.  It took eight years but her parents were so proud when she developed the ability to teach a hearing-impaired group to dance.

One of the academy’s other cool achievements must have been entering the Malaysia Book of Records when they set a record for the “Most Number of Ballerinas Standing En Pointe” on Malaysia Day 2010.  This feat was reported with headlines, “Ballet girls make Johor proud.” 

Ye Pick Lian presenting a cheque for RM150,000 to
members of the Lions Club of Johor Jaya, raised
from a charity show to commemorating her 40-year
anniversary in ballet
As mentor, Ye inculcates a sense of charity in her students because she believes that children who grow up with such values tend to contribute more to society in future.  Giving selflessly, according to Ye, is the epitome of love and kindness.

The academy has collaborated with the Lions Club of Johor Jaya in fund-raising charity shows since 2002, with funds donated to help patients in the club’s dialysis center and needy students.  The recent charity show commemorating Ye’s 40-year anniversary, raised RM150,000.

At this juncture of her journey, Ye has found her peace in her work, played her role dutifully and learnt to give back to the community.

While ballet helps to strengthen children’s back and waist muscles, it also moulds their style and character to grow up with elegance and confidence.  To Ye, such confidence is beauty.

Looking back on her joys and hurts, pride and pain, she is ready to reap the fruits of her labour and enjoy the faithful bond with her graceful ballerinas.

A version of this was published in The New Straits Times, Life & Times on 17 September 2016

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