#TFMweek2018 : Dancing Queen Goes Back To School

On the 6th of August, Suhaili Micheline, one of Malaysia’s most celebrated contemporary dancers and a name famously associated with the likes of Under Armour, Sk!n, Disney and Malaysia’s ‘So You Think You Can Dance’, took a ferry ride to a small island off Klang with 2018 Fellow Gee Keat to participate in a co-teaching session.

“It’s been quite some time since I set my alarm up with the intention to wake up for school,” Suhaili chuckled as we made our way to school on foot from the jetty.

The day started off like any other normal Monday with a school assembly. One particular student tugged at Suhaili’s heart as he displayed Asperger’s Syndrome. This resonated deeply with her as she has an autistic cousin and is a big champion for movement therapy for such students. This worked as a huge motivation boost for Suhaili and upped her spirits for what the rest of the day has in store for her.

As the students dispersed into their respective classes post the assembly, the Penolong Kanan Hal Ehwal Murid (Vice Principal for Student Affairs), Madam Lim, took the lead to show Suhaili around school.

A School Unlike Any Other

“Seeing this school functioning for more than 50 years with the same old architecture of being on stilts gives me kampong vibes. There is such a sense of nostalgia attached to this place for me…it is beautiful, but also humbling as I am now first-hand exposed to the real disparity issue between the rural and urban folk,” said Suhaili is a sombre tone.

Gee Keat, a 2018 Fellow, noticed that the mere presence of Suhaili as someone “out-of-town” had an impact on the students. “The fact that Suhaili is someone from an arts field and has made such a big impact within her industry got the students very intrigued to know her and speak to her. Every class she passed by, we heard a series of ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’.”

Students and Life Around Them

During her meeting with the school representatives, Suhaili learnt that the students don’t have much engagement with people off the island. Thinking back on her schooling days, the common big four-storey buildings in the city with students of all races. And here she was at a school which is holding a maximum of 300 students. The “school feel” she had experienced growing up was very much different, however this difference was in no way a hindrance but instead roused Suhaili’s spirits to take the reins and help the system. “I see passionate teachers, hardworking Fellows and wonderful students who are capable of so much more,” she shared. “All that’s running through my mind is ‘What more can I do, how else can I better provide for them?’”

“The students here are very shy. They are such sincere souls but since language is not their forte, they are not keen on talking if not engaged with,” said Mr. Tan, a senior teacher at the school.

After the lunch session with teachers and the TFM team where they highlighted issues the school and students faced, Suhaili was to co-teach a class of Form 4 students with Gee Keat. Right before the lesson, Suhaili shared that she was in fact quite nervous, as despite having taught dance for many years, this was a new environment, audience and subject – Add Maths!

Class is in Session!

Midway through the class, Suhaili noticed that the students had a bit of a communication barrier when they tried to answer her questions. Coming from a community which never emphasised much on the importance of being multilingual or the perks of picking up English, the students here lacked the basic tool of language to communicate. The common language for conversing daily was Mandarin and going to a school which had a 98% Chinese population certainly didn’t help either.

However, what really struck Suhaili was the effort they put in to overcome that barrier and strive above it. “They would huddle up with the person next to them, conjure up a sentence and answer me. This wasn’t just a class where I was an educator, this was also a class where I was educated. These students are the living proof of resilience.”

After the lesson ended, Suhaili had 15 minutes to spare before school ended for the day. As a treat for the students, she decided to show and teach them one way to express themselves through body language and dance.

Previously, Mr Azil, a teacher in the school, had pointed out how much the students love music, arts and sports. Following that, Gee Keat, the Fellow assigned to this school, had started providing guitar and ukulele classes as a means of building a better relationship with his students.

So for her performance, Suhaili teamed up with Gee Keat and his guitar. He played a Jay Chou song as both Suhaili and the students admitted that they are big fans of him. Through dance, Suhaili acted out the songs, from variations of sadness to joy. The students’ reaction to this form of art was so positive and heart-warming that everyone present felt a renewed sense of purpose.

Aspirations as a Stakeholder

“I want to be a connector,” Suhaili reflected after she’d finished the lesson. “There are people out there who want to be with these children; to help them, encourage them and coach them to have dreams which move further than this island. I wish to do that for them. What Teach For Malaysia has done here, through the Fellows, is so inspiring. I am again reminded of my Malaysian spirit, seeing students of different backgrounds coming together and striving to overcome similar hardships.”

Seeing her determination, Madam Lim and Gee Keat were quick to start a discourse on what can be done next for the students. Suhaili, being a professional dancer and choreographer who has worked and performed for/with the likes of Tan Sri Michelle Yeoh, had the idea of doing something which moved away from the traditional method of education. This was very well received by the senior teachers. “I want to bring in my friends who are Malaysia’s national basketball players to harness and coach the students. I noticed that they are very sports inclined. This is a key trait which we can work on!”

To now work towards a student-centric module, the school and Suhaili have to take into account where their interests lay. Sports and arts have long been a form of releasing stress. However in today’s day and age, it is indisputable that these are very possible areas to build a career around. By exposing them to national level athletes and sportsmen, Suhaili hopes the students will have a more grounded sense of ambition, knowing that it is possible to excel in such fields.

Suhaili also wishes to work with the school board and host a cultural dance workshop because one of the biggest obstacles Suhaili identified was that the students are underexposed to other races. At the same time, it could serve as a means to teach the students different ways of expressing themselves and working on their confidence.

The Dancing Queen left the students with these inspiring words: “Sometimes when you believe in magic, it is actually the becoming of your reality.” May this be the glimmer of hope for the students to dream beyond their small island.

Suhaili Micheline is a professional dancer who holds a Bachelor Degree in Dance (Hons) from The Victorian College of the Arts (VCA), Melbourne. Currently she is the Vice Principal of Aurora Dance Academy. She was a finalist of So You Think You Can Dance (Malaysia) and is a brand ambassador for Under Armour.

Chee Gee Keat is a 2018 Teach For Malaysia Fellow, who graduated with an MEng in Chemical Engineering (Hons) from the University of Bath. He is currently teaching RBT (Reka Bentuk & Teknologi) at a high-need school in Klang. He often runs guitar and ukulele lessons after school hours for his students.

*Names of teachers and students have been changed due to privacy reasons.

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