Going onstage (www.esplanade.com).

Dance Family

Me x mum: Valerie Yeo x Jenny Chien

Singapore ballet’s mother-daughter duo


Published: 5 May 2020

Time taken : ~10mins

What is it like being a performer when your own mother has walked that path?

We talk to Singapore Dance Theatre (SDT) artist Valerie Yeo and her mother, Hong Kong-born ballet educator and former SDT dancer Jenny Chien, about their artistic journeys and how they have influenced each other.

Jenny Chien on:

How exposure to the arts can help children

Art can stimulate the minds of children. When they learn art, they will learn to be more patient. In order to produce good art, they have to invest lots of time to perfect their skill, there is no short cut to success. It is something the digital era babies might find it hard to understand at the beginning.

Teaching both her daughters ballet

I was always trying hard to make my daughters (Valerie and Sabrina) and their classmates feel comfortable in class. I treated my daughters like all my other students, when they did something well, they will get praise and will be chosen to demonstrate. If they misbehave, they will get scolded, same as their peers.

When they were very young, I reminded them they have to be cooperative before going to class, and if they got scolded, I would explain to them why afterwards.

The point when she knew Valerie had talent as a dancer

Valerie was a plump little girl in primary school. She was not born flexible and she did not have ideal ballet feet but she has beautiful dance qualities, and she is very hardworking. Everything fell into place when she grew much taller when she was 13 years old.

That was when I knew she had potential to go far, so I asked if she wanted to audition for the School of the Arts (SOTA) to receive proper contemporary dance training as well as in other dance styles.

How her daughter has inspired her as an educator

Valerie has affirmed to me that if you are determined enough, you could turn a lot of impossibilities into possibilities. Apart from overcoming flexibility and feet issues, she made a very successful comeback from a serious knee injury.

It made me not give up on any student, even though they might not appear to be ideal for ballet at the beginning. I want to help them receive proper training, even though most students only train once a week. I always hope they understood my teaching methods, and when they decide they want to make dance their career, the foundation I built for them could allow them to succeed.

Her hopes for her two daughters

My younger daughter has completed her foundation programme in the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, and she would like to pursue fine arts. Both my daughters are talented in drawing. I hope they can continue to do the things they like, and be able to make a career out of them. Personally, I feel very lucky to be able to do that.

The qualities of Valerie that remind her of herself

We are both very hardworking, and very critical of ourselves. When I look at her photos, I feel they are very beautiful, but she always saw a lot of flaws, likewise for my photos.

The one trait of Valerie that she wishes she had

She is more open-minded than I am. She is very curious, interested and receptive in learning all types of dance styles. That makes her a more versatile dancer than I was. In that area, I wished I was more like her but I limited myself to classical and neoclassical only.

Valerie Yeo on:

Having mum as her first dance teacher

She was very good, with experience as an ex-professional dancer. She brings all of that into her teaching to help us understand what we should aim for, even if most of us were only doing it as a hobby or weekly class. She was strict but in a good way and wants the best for her students and for us to take it as seriously as it should be taken.

Who is stricter: mum or dad?

Both are equally strict about different things.

The performance of her mother’s that she enjoyed most

I haven’t watched her perform live before, only in some brief old recordings, and a lot of nice old photographs. I think she looked very strong and beautiful in all of her old photos of different roles she had danced. So I probably would enjoy all of the performances if I got to watch it.

Her dream as a dancer

I would like to be versatile in other types of dance (besides ballet), and to be able to use as much as my body can allow me to do, until I have to retire one day.

Their favourite mother-daughter bonding activity

When we go overseas to visit my grandparents, we like to take long walks to the supermarket or along the nearby hiking trails.

The qualities of Jenny that remind her of herself

We are both very critical of ourselves, she sees that in me and reminds me to use it to my benefit to improve myself. I usually get obsessed with my dancing in a negative way and question ‘what is “wrong” with my dancing?’.

The one trait of her mother’s that she would like to “steal”

Her ballet technique.

Best advice from mum about performing

She reminds me to keep watching and learning from everyone around me, there is always something to learn and apply. This is very useful, for example, sometimes when you can’t figure out how to do something, watching someone who can do it well helps a lot. Or watching how other dancers hold their stage presence, or cope with different challenges. It is both inspiring and very helpful!