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By Benita Aw Yeong
The New Paper
January 20, 2012

He soars gracefully, effortlessly through the air, on wings of hope and his mother’s sacrifice.

Only 16, Thaddaeus Low is a perfectionist who wants to get his leaps and pirouettes just right, but he knows that injury can cut short his life of dance – a life his mother sold the family home to pay for

Thaddaeus Low is one of only 30 in the world last year to receive a place in the prestigious London’s Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance. It’s a one-in-lifetime leap of faith for him – he left Singapore’s School of the Arts to go to London four months ago.

But he needs to find a way to temper the uncertainty of a career in ballet so that his mother’s sacrifice would not be in vain.

His mother, Madam Catherina Koh, a secretary in her 50s, sold the family home in 2010 so that her son could pursue his dreams.  She is paying for his studies abroad from the money she set aside from selling their Chapel Lodge condominium in Katong. The family downgraded to a five-room HDB flat in Simei. Madam Koh declined to be interviewed.

Her three children do not know how much she got for the condominium. She became the sole breadwinner after separating from her husband when Thaddaeus was a few years old.

A file check reveals that freehold Chapel Lodge apartments are as large as 1,500 sq ft and fetched up to $840 psf at the end of 2010.

Says Thaddaeus: “I think she got a good offer, but we all asked why she did it because we really loved that house.

“She later told me that if she didn’t sell the house, she wouldn’t have enough money to send me (overseas).”

It will cost a hefty $93,000 to see him through the next two years in school. This includes the cost of food and lodging.

“A lot of people say the dancer’s life is a hard one. And it’s true. But it’s also a lot of fun,” he says quietly.

During our photo shoot, the passionate young man wanted to get the leaps and pirouettes just right. But he was careful too – knowing full well that injury could spell the end of his dreams. He says: “My mum sent me to dance class when I was about four because I was a hyper kid.

“I needed an outlet to release all the energy, but I happened to be pretty good at it and I was interested in it, so I continued,” he says with a grin.

His sister, Miss Melissa Koh, 32, a senior accounts director in an advertising agency, says the family chose to rally round the baby of the family and support him in his quest. She and her 31-year-old brother chip in with the finances. “We contribute to different portions of his studies. I take care of his wardrobe and his allowance, as well as the cost of the trips back home,” she says.

Mother and son are close. Despite the time difference (London is eight hours behind Singapore), not a day passes without at least a long-distance phone call. “I call her three times a day. Once when I wake up, once during lunchtime, then we talk again before I sleep, which is when she wakes up,” he says with a grin.

When asked if he considers himself a mummy’s boy, he answers without skipping a beat: “Yes, I definitely am.

“Sometimes she jokes that I better pay her back when I earn my own money. I reply yes of course. I’ll definitely repay her. She’s given up so much for me.”

Thaddaeus is not the only one taking the route less danced.

Adelene Stanley, too, has opted for ballet rather than taking the more conventional route. She too has received a place at Rambert.

It is a brave but tough option.

They’re gambling on their bodies’ continued health and strength to perform gruelling dance sequences, in a field where only the best get to shine.

The strenuous physical demands confronting most professional dancers mean that most retire in their 30s, usually moving on to becoming teachers.

The National Arts Council directory lists a total of 29 dance groups in Singapore. Of these, 12 fall into the ballet / contemporary category.

The principal roles in classical ballet are also written for young dancers at the peak of their physical abilities.

In other words, it is not easy to succeed professionally as a classical ballet dancer. But both Thaddaeus and Adelene are doing their pas de deux with their eyes wide open.

Thaddaeus says matter-of-factly that he knows dancing is not one of the highest paid professions and he needs to be the best to make it.

A 2010 report by Payscale in the US reckons that dancers, including ballerinas, earn an average of between US$19,000 (S$25,000) and US$35,000 a year. But principal dancers and those with big prestigious companies can earn more.

Singapore Dance Theatre’s artistic director Janek Schergen said in a 2009 article that “the salary of a New York City Ballet dancer is comparable to that of a Wall Street banker”.

Does Thaddaeus have a shot at greatness? There are positive signs. When he started at his London ballet school, he was judged within a fortnight to be good enough to move immediately to the second year. The course is normally three years long.

“I mean, the best dancer is going to get paid well. And if I do something, I’m going to be the best at it,” he says.

No matter how high he is flying now, Thaddaeus still has his mind on the home his mother sold. “I always tell her that one day, when I earn enough money, I’m going to buy that exact same house.”

Copyright © 2012 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd

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