Above picture (Left to Right) – Elina Wisung, Lillian Chong, Yana Lewis, Sushmitha Margad
In conversation with Lillian Chong –
Where are you from?
I was born in Michigan, USA (Northern USA, the state looks like a mitten). My mom, dad, and I moved to northern Virginia (on the east coast, approximately 20-30 minutes from Washington, D.C.) when I was 3.5 years, and I’ve lived there ever since.
How old are you? Where did you grow up? Who is in your family?
I am 22 years young. I grew up in Northern Virginia. My mother was born in Ohio, the state right next to Michigan, where I was born. My father is an immigrant from the Caribbean country Trinidad, he and his sister moved to the US after my grandma secured a job as the Head Pre-natal Nurse at a hospital in New York and my grandpa found a job as a chemist. My brother, Owen, was born when I was 5. Owen is now 17 and is in grade 12 and applying for universities.
I also have 2 cats, Oscar and Nico, however, I’m allergic to cats.
How were you introduced to dance? What is your earliest memory of a ballet class?
A few months after my mom, dad, and I moved to VA, I attended my first ballet class and never left. My earliest memory of ballet class is doing my 4 year old version of grand jetés over coloured dots on the ground. I also remember my first recital; I was a candy cane in the company’s version of The Nutcracker.
What are you pursuing academically? University? Course name?
I have just completed my undergraduate degree at George Mason University in northern Virginia. I now have my Bachelor’s degree in Kinesiology (aka Exercise Science) with a minor in Nutrition. I’m a graduate!!
How did the idea of applying for an internship in India occur? How did you zero onto The Lewis Foundation of Classical Ballet?
Whenever I get asked this question, I find that people follow along better when I explain the whole story:
So, a requirement of my university program is to complete 700 total internship hours, spread among 3 semesters: 150 hours, 75 hours and 75 hours (in the same semester), and then 400 hours. Each internship should be at different locations and the university has a separate class for students to discuss successes and difficulties they are having. The final 400-hour internship is always its own semester.
There was one boy who graduated from my program a few years before me, and he was the first student in my program to travel abroad for a university-associated internship. He went to Senegal for 1 month and helped train their youth national basketball team. At that time, the university was skeptical about students going abroad so they limited his time to 4 weeks. I first heard about his travels through some friends who were brothers in his fraternity, and I immediately thought “I’m going to do this.” So, I tailored my internships to things I enjoy, like dance, strength training, learning about people, and healing through proper nutrition and holistic methods.
Back in January 2019, I had a 1-hour break between teaching ballet classes, and I began thinking about where I wanted to go for the Fall semester (my final internship of 400 hours). I knew I wanted to do something with dance and staying local was of no interest to me, so I Google searched “dance companies in Asia” and “children ballet companies in Asia”. I came across this very sketchy website, so sketchy I thought I might get a virus, but I went on it anyway. On the main webpage, there was a list of Asian countries and when I clicked each one, the local dance companies showed up. None of the other countries had dance companies that were of interest to me, but, then when I clicked ‘India’, TLFCB popped up. I went on the website and it was immediately what I was looking for. So, just before my next class, I sent an email introducing myself along with my 2 resumes and then I just waited for a response.
I later found out that Rohini was the one who received my first message.
In theory, that whole sketchy-website-research-thing I did and reaching out to TLFCB could have been a total scam, but also with the amount of content on the TLFCB website, there would’ve had to be someone real dedicated to scamming someone!
What were the few key factors that inspired or influenced your decision to take an internship with us?
The formatting, colour, pictures, and the amount and type of blogs on the website made me the most interested in interning. I was just waiting for the approval of my internship supervisor.
What were your expectations from this internship?
After approval, I was just expecting to learn something and finish my internship hours. I knew what I wanted to get out of it, but honestly, I wasn’t sure if I’d have to push to achieve what I wanted or if TLFCB would be a cooperative internship site.
- “I would love to learn new dance teaching styles and have an opportunity to apply them by taking classes and teaching or substituting.
- I notice that your school values dancer nutrition and cross-training with Yoga, Pilates, and Callanetics. I would love to provide your students, parents, and teachers with some more sports nutrition information through your online blogs, creating posters to display around the school, and holding nutrition classes for everyone to attend.
- I am interested in leading conditioning classes for your students to improve their overall athleticism and prevent injury as they prepare for their performances.
- Whether it’s dress rehearsals or show-time, I would also love to help with your busy productions if they occur during my time with you.”
Did you have apprehensions before applying?
For me, the worst-case scenario was “what if they say no?” But, since I hadn’t even met anyone from TLFCB at that point, I figured I wasn’t risking much. I knew there were risks of going overseas, but, if I focused on those risks, I never would have applied, or I would have applied but then sent an email weeks later dropping out.
Did you have any apprehensions in coming to India or particularly Bangalore? What were they? Were you concerned about safety, security or internship working conditions?
Once my internship was approved by both TLFCB and GMU, the biggest concern for me was my safety as a female foreigner, travelling alone. I was also skeptical about the living conditions in my Airbnb. Otherwise, I was just extremely excited and just focused on working enough hours to make enough money to last me 4 months.
How was your communication experience with The Lewis Foundation of Classical Ballet during the application up to the final acceptance stage?
The communication was great! I initially reached out in January or February, and my internship was accepted by TLFCB within a week after my initial email. It was all via email and it all happened so quickly. After the final acceptance, I still had 8 months until the internship started. I reached out to TLFCB when I had questions or concerns about the Visa application process and when I injured my knees, but otherwise, there wasn’t much to talk about until about 1-2 weeks prior when my Visa was finally approved and I started packing.
Did you feel welcomed at the Foundation?
I did! I felt very welcome. There were, of course, a few awkward conversational moments, but, the studio was so busy that it was easy to find stuff to do and get assimilated into the office community.
What were your initial days of the internship like?
My first day at TLFCB, I arrived at 1030am to meet the office staff, took Callanetics, attended an office meeting to plan the NITS rehearsals, and then I helped Yana with her Wednesday evening classes.
I would say the days were long, but during my weeks preparing in the US, I was working longer hours (8 am-11 pm) so these hours felt like a breeze.
Describe a few things you love most about this internship experience?
I loved that I was able to use almost ALL of my skills (academic and creative) and I was in such a different studio environment than my previous experiences. In the US, most companies order costume catalogs/magazines and order costumes in bulk from those companies. Being involved in a space that had all original creations was such a huge learning experience and a great creative outlet. I also appreciated the ability to take dance classes and teach classes. They were the perfect outlet for me. Since I’m not studying dance at university and I switched my major after my first year (this meant I was “catching up” with my peers and had to take summer classes in addition to my regular semester classes) it was always really difficult for me to keep that creative outlet. So being able to dance as much as I did, and teach the jazz classes (my strongest style), was such a treat that I don’t take that for granted.
How has this internship been different from the other internships you have done in the past?
My internship at TLFCB was VERY different from my past internships. The Fall 2018 internship I did was shadowing Personal Trainers to see how they coach and inspire their clients to keep working towards their health goals. I also interviewed ALL the different department directors: American Football, Soccer, Squash, Golf, Swimming, Water Polo, Strength & Conditioning, Lacrosse, Rugby, Basketball, Volleyball, Dance, Hockey, Figure Skating, Gymnastics, Baseball & Softball, Marketing Team, Finance Team, Analyst Team, Sales Team, and the Co-CEOs, to learn about their goals for their department. Since I was already employed at this facility, I also got to include some of my dance teaching hours into my internship and helped organize a ballet class for all those sport directors to help them have a greater appreciation for ballet and the skills their athletes can gain if they enroll in ballet classes.
The Spring 2019 internships were: a) helping train college American football players to prepare for the NFL, National Football League, tryouts. Side note: 3 of the 4 players we trained were drafted onto professional American Football teams! b) I then shadowed an acupuncturist at a local chiropractor clinic and learned about client confidentiality and connecting with clients who are going through a really tough time in their personal lives.
So, none of them were anything close to my internship at TLFCB.
Describe a few things that could have been better in this internship?
Overall, I wouldn’t change anything about my internship. I was taking another online class in addition to my TLFCB internship, so I really appreciate the office staff understanding that I would need to take some time away from the company and just work on my assignments for that class.
Did you feel pushed to learn and challenge yourself in this internship?
I felt very pushed to learn academically and creatively. A component of this internship was to complete a “Special Project”. My special project was a teachers booklet explaining how the body moves (joints and muscles) in ballet dancers and then creating stories to teach the Pre-Primary and Primary students to have proper technique like standing up straight, keeping the hips positioned properly, pointing the feet, and keeping the feet from rolling inwards. My arts and crafts skills also improved a lot with all the costume and props making.
Were your expectations met in this internship?
My expectations were met and exceeded in this internship.
What did you learn in this internship in connection with the course you are pursuing at your University?
In my university classes, I was always tailoring all of my projects towards dancers, that was how I learn best. So this time, it was as if the class itself was tailored to dancers, and it was extremely hands-on, so, compared to my past university classroom environments, this was TONS better.
What did you learn in this internship over and above the learning’s mentioned above?
I haven’t ever had a dance teacher who could speak “my language”. The ability to learn from someone as anatomically in-tune and knowledgeable as Miss Yana was the best thing I gained from my internship. Back in January (12 months back) I shredded my menisci in both knees while dancing. I was working with a Tai Qi instructor, who was also a masseuse, and 2 personal trainers to help me get back on my feet, but dance is my outlet, I heal best when I’m able to dance. So, taking weekly classes WHILE strengthening the correct muscles to allow my knees to heal has been a mind-blowing experience. 6 months ago, I could barely bend my legs to sit on a chair and I wouldn’t dare take the steps. Now I am jumping and running up steps and just being mindful and aware of how I step and which muscles I engage.
I also gained insight on how professional companies operate and what it’s like preparing for a large show like Sleeping Beauty. My home studio only had one show every June, on Father’s Day. There wasn’t a theme, each class just did their own few dances at their assigned show times (three 1-hour shows). The little ones had one dance and only danced in one show. The oldest girls would have 3-5 dances and would perform various dances spread among the 3 show times). We would have one rehearsal all together the day before for each show, and then show day. So, being a part of this larger, WAY more involved production was very different for me.
Was the team at the Foundation supportive?
Yes very much.
Were there any challenges in navigating Bangalore?
First, let me say, I am very grateful TLFCB organized Suresh to come pick me up. My first day in Bangalore, I was thoroughly terrified. I came alone, planned it by myself, and it was my first time being SO far from home. In the US, people, generally, only honk when they are actually upset, so when I woke up and all I heard was honking, I stuck to my bed and the snack goody bag TLFCB gave me. Thankfully, Mala came to take me on my first grocery store trip and she guided me through the streets DURING rush hour LOL after that, I was fine. I relied heavily on Google Maps, and Miss Elina took me to my first restaurant in Indiranagar, during the ride there I saw more of the Bangalore streets and really started to feel what it’s like to live in Bangalore. Miss Sushmitha, Thej, and Rohini, helped me with my first auto rides. After I booked my own few auto rides life was pretty easy. The only part left was remembering where the different neighborhoods are and how to direct the auto driver back to my Airbnb.
During my internship, I was taking another university class online. Miss Sushmitha also helped me find the best place to do work for that class, Third Wave Coffee Roasters.
How did you find people in general outside office?
The first thing I noticed was how many men there are. They all seemed fairly polite, I’m a foreigner though. Some people thought I was Indian because of my skin and facial features, but once I let my hair down, I got lots of stares. My clothes were also very different from the other women where I was staying. My first few weeks, most people were open to working with me to understand what I was requesting, food, clothing, or otherwise. But overall, everyone was polite and respectful. There was one cab driver that got mad at me for making him wait, but he was speaking in a language that was definitely different from Kannada and English, so I just stared at him until he started driving.
What was your diet like before you came to Bangalore? Were you able to get what you wanted in terms of food? Were the supermarkets well equipped? Did you visit any fruit markets? Did you miss any food in the USA that you could not find in Bangalore. Describe your experience.
There were no US foods that I missed LOL Fruit and vegetables are VERY expensive in the US (even lower quality produce), so finally being able to eat only fruit for breakfast, lunch, and dinner was my favourite thing about my diet. Now that I’ve lived in southern India, I’ve realized that most Indian restaurants in the US serve only northern Indian foods. Dosa, idli, pav bhaji, sambar, thalis, etc. were all very new to me. I have always been a big foodie (loving strong, vibrant flavours and mixing various foods to explore new tastes). I thoroughly enjoyed south Indian food and still rave about it to my friends, family, and coworkers back in the States.
Before I came to Bangalore, I was mostly eating granola bars, apples, bananas, sandwiches, coconut rice with veggies, roasted vegetables, smoothies…and a lot of bread-y foods to keep me full so I could save money for when I arrived in Bangalore.
How would you compare the living expenses to where you come from? Food, stay, travel, medical (if any)
In relation to the US, everything is MUCH cheaper, food, living, everything. If someone were to make US money while living in Bangalore, they’d live like a king. But, I’ve also realized that the ratio of food prices and living expenses to the annual salary might be similar in India as it is in the US (meaning, the average amount of money spent on living expenses annually may be a similar percentage of an Indian’s annual income as the US cost of living to the average American annual income).
What would you advise future interns in general?
I would advise anyone interested in interning anywhere to be prepared to do anything and everything, and, if you aren’t too familiar with the company or industry they work in, get EXTRA familiar! Understanding why other people find certain things important can change your whole perspective about lifestyles you aren’t used to. I feel that all interns should take initiative to learn about what types of things they should be knowledgeable of.
What would you suggest to future interns that are considering interning in India and particularly the Lewis Foundation?
If you aren’t used to the dance world, do extensive research on why dancers and dance teachers function the way we do and why certain aspects of running a dance class and organizing performances are so urgent. Dance culture and the dancer mindset are both very unique, especially compared to traditional Indian culture: leotards, tights, class mannerisms, and dedication required to the art form may be very different from what you are used to.
Also, be open to putting yourself in other people’s shoes and looking at things through someone else’s perspective.
Why should one look for an internship outside their home country/India?
I highly recommend looking for experiences outside of your native country for many reasons:
- You get to experience life in a completely different environment and you get to see how you react to new pressures and experiences. You really get to learn about who YOU are and what YOU want.
- Social media connects people from all parts of the world, but there is nothing like experiencing what other people experience. Being a part of “those people” is a powerful learning opportunity. One thing that’s hit home for me is that there are no actual differences in us (the human race). We all have issues with our local and national governments, human rights inequalities and mistreatment, etc. I feel one of the only differences that matter is just what we do in our 24-hours each day.
- It’s also important to stare fear in the face…and punch it LOL if traveling to a “foreign land” intimidates you then I HIGHLY recommend jumping through that hurdle and forcing yourself to go somewhere new. Fear is there to keep us alive, but it also often holds us back from succeeding.
Will you miss your colleagues and friends at the Foundation?
Absolutely, I have a new family in Bangalore.
Will you miss India and Bangalore?
When will you return to India?
I have some dance science research opportunities lined up at GMU starting in January. After that, I have the option of going to grad school or returning to India for a couple years. So, we’ll see what happens.