By Aradhana Kiran and Maya Haridas, as seen in En Avant Nov-Dec 2022
Elina Wisung has been training with Ms Yana since 2001, and has been teaching with TLFCB since 2006. Read on to find out about her early experiences in dance.
How old were you when you did your first ballet class? Why did you start learning ballet? What was the experience like?
The first class I did was when I was six. The reason I went was because one of my friends went. Honestly, I don’t really remember it that much. I remember us playing some games and I remember liking it and having a nice time. More than that I remember that I took the bus with my friend on my own to and from the class, which was a big deal.
When I was nine, I auditioned for a school that had dance as part of the curriculum. They had music classes and they had dance classes. My sister was already in the dance class. My brother attended the music classes.
I was there for two and a half years until we moved to Malaysia, at which point I went to an international school. There I joined the after school dance team from seventh grade onwards. In grade 8, I also joined a studio outside of school. I didn’t do ballet there, I attended jazz classes and did a couple of jazz exams with them. Those were my first formal dance exams.
Your first class with Miss Yana
I moved to India when I was just about to turn sixteen, because of my dad’s work. We lived in Malaysia before this, and we had a choice of either coming here or going back to Sweden after three and a half years, and everybody was like, ‘Not back to Sweden please!’ I went to the Canadian International School. The first weekend that we were here, my mum went to the Overseas Women’s Club and she asked around for dance classes, and Miss Yana’s name came up. So my very first weekend here in India I went to Miss Yana’s ballet, jazz and callanetics classes… That’s when dance became serious for me. I did all her classes, whatever she was teaching. She used to teach junior jazz in Alliance Française and I used to go there and help with that, too.
What is the difference between learning ballet abroad and India?
Honestly, my only real experience before Miss Yana was not particularly technically detailed or precise. I guess that’s the difference. I don’t remember that kind of precision and detailed work in any of my other ballet classes before joining Miss Yana. Having said that, I only really started taking ballet seriously once I came here. I think the reason was that I realised that there was so much more to it than what I had experienced before. Technically, but also artistically and in terms of anatomical understanding. It’s a never ending process of learning.
Describe your experience learning under Miss Yana.
I’ve been learning under her for more than 21 years now. I think one of the beautiful things is the development of understanding that you get over the years. I was just speaking to her the other day about how I’ve been learning with her for so long that she really only needs to look at me and I know what she’s thinking that I need to adjust. I may not always be able to adjust what she’s (sometimes telepathically) telling me, but the years-long process of learning has been so deep anatomically, mentally (and emotionally!) that I have such an amazing understanding of my body. Again the beautiful thing is that there’s so much more to learn. I’m going to a physio now for an old injury that I’ve had and Miss Yana is part of that process. She sits with me so that she knows how to help me later, when the physio is done. There’s so much learning there that translates back into my technical understanding of ballet and teaching. It keeps growing, there’s no end to it. Miss Yana often says that she’s always learning as well. It’s this beautiful knowledge, development and continued learning that translates through the generations, from her through me, through me to my students and hopefully onwards through there as well. And because she’s so detailed and has such immense knowledge, I think we’re all very lucky to have that source. It ripples out.
What was the funniest experience you had while on stage?
One of the funniest, in retrospect, was when we were doing a piece called Momentum, and it was Miss Sushmitha, myself and Sid (some readers will remember him). It was really fast paced – you know Miss Yana – all jumps for two and a half minutes, no breathing space. We’re doing this piece on stage and suddenly I’m like, ‘Where’s Sid?’ I could see Miss Sushmitha out of the corner of my eye and I’m passing her and we locked glances for a second like, ‘What’s happening?’ I was wondering if he had fallen off the stage. We finished the dance, he was still nowhere to be seen, and we ran off stage. His pants fell off, so he ran off stage! It was not funny in the moment, but it’s pretty funny now.
Most of the time when funny stuff happens on stage, it’s funny in retrospect, but stressful in the moment. Anything you’re not expecting on stage in that moment is usually like, ‘What? No, no no!’ Having said that, I’ve had some really fun moments, especially with dancers like Miss Sushmitha and Dayita, both of whom I’ve danced with for nearly 20 years. When we dance together, we really enjoy it. We have such a long history of events and shows – all these amazing memories, it really feels like a blessing that we still dance together.
And while teaching a class?
I can’t think of a funniest moment, but there are so many fun moments when there’s some teaching aspect or some story or something and some kid will get into it so much that it’s such a joy to watch them do it. I have one student in a Pre-primary class, who when I tell a story just laughs. She just heartily, belly laughs at my story, whether it’s funny or not. She just really enjoys it, and that’s one of the most fun parts of teaching, because when kids have fun they’re going to absorb what you’re doing as well. Her mum tells me that she goes home and teaches her father every part of the class. She’ll go through every section and teach her dad. You just know that she’s absorbing and gaining so much from that class, and that brings an immense amount of joy.
What was the first role you played on stage?
In Sweden, I remember we had those Charlie Chaplin style hats and white shirts and suspenders and black pants. We did a jazz piece, but I actually have no clue what the music was or anything. I remember the backstage experience more than the onstage experience. I’m not sure why!
In Malaysia, the first big show that I did lots of pieces in was in 7th grade. I performed in an International Fest show. From then on, I did a lot of shows in that school – in fact I think I was in every single dance show they had for those three and a half years. I was part of the musical Grease, and I was part of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I was part of the middle and high school dance teams. We travelled to the Philippines for a cultural convention when I was in 9th grade.
What was your favourite role?
That’s a tricky question. I like playing a main character, there’s no getting away from that! I really liked doing the fairies in Sleeping Beauty. The six of us ‘main’ fairies really became a team – it was really nice to work together. In terms of process and my own technical development I really enjoyed that. I also enjoyed Mrs Potts in Belle and the Beast a lot. She was really my own to create. I had not watched anyone do Mrs Potts in a ballet, there was no set thing that I had to follow. Plus I loved that costume! So a solo character, I think Mrs Potts. As part of a team, the Sleeping Beauty fairies.
At what age did you first get your pointe shoes?
I must have been sixteen. I got them quite soon after I came to India and started dancing with Miss Yana. Before that I had not really even thought about it, because, again, ballet was not my main focus in dance.
How did you balance academics with dance as a student?
(laughs) I didn’t! I always did quite well in school, which was a blessing I suppose. I always did my homework, I was a very disciplined student like that. When I started dancing in India, it was just at the weekends. When YLDC started, we would rehearse with Miss Yana twice a week from 7:00 to 9:00 pm. I would do my homework after that. So I didn’t really balance it I guess. The last two years out of the three in India I was really focused on dance. I guess because I didn’t find school very difficult before that I still managed to do quite well. I was like, ‘I’m going to dance, that’s it. I’m going to audition for dance college.’ I used to have permission to leave school, go and do a private class with Miss Yana and come back after lunch for the last class.
Tell us about the dance colleges that you auditioned for in London.
I auditioned for four colleges and I was accepted into two. The one that I finally went to was London Studio Centre. They had a ballet course and a musical theatre course and I went to the musical theatre course. I did not really enjoy it because I wanted a lot more ballet. Only ballet. I only stayed in that school for a year for that reason. I didn’t want to do contemporary, singing, jazz and tap at the time and didn’t really make the most of what was offered there. Now (laughs) I would love to do all those subjects.
After a year at LSC I started studying for a teaching degree with the Royal Academy of Dance. I attended open ballet classes during the week at the same time.
I worked in a trekking shop, Field and Trek. Incidentally I went there to work through Miss Yana. Miss Yana loves trekking, she has climbed a lot of mountains and done a lot of travel in mountain ranges. She has a lot of gear and she had been to this shop to buy a lot of it. So she said ‘Oh why don’t you go there and get a job?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, why not?’ I don’t think I would have thought of going there myself. I became a bit of an expert in jackets, tents, hardcore trekking boots. I learned how to make insoles for the boots. It was a good experience. At 18 I was on my own in London, sharing a flat with people I didn’t know before, earning money and paying for dance classes… You grow up a lot in a short time.
Tell us about some other activities you did that have influenced ballet.
I did figure skating when I was little. There was also a public tennis court close to the street where we lived in Sweden. In the winter someone would flush the court with water so it froze over and turned into a rink. My friends and I used to go there to skate for fun. All my friends had skates and every day, dressed in five layers of clothing and hardcore Finnish overalls, we used to go. I am sure that has influenced my ballet. I miss it, wherever I go to Sweden or Finland I always try to get some ice skating done. I really enjoy it, it is so much fun!
What inspired you to become a teacher of dance?
Miss Yana. When I didn’t like the way dance college was going in that first year, I still knew that dance would be a major part of my life. I knew that I was not really cut out to become a professional dancer, however, in terms of going to auditions, pushing people aside and pushing yourself to the top among others. It’s not me. I am good at pushing myself in class, but I realised quite quickly that it simply wasn’t in my nature to push through auditions and be in constant competition with others.
How can I be part of the dance world in the biggest way possible without becoming a professional dancer? Through teaching what I love. I have experienced one of the most amazing teachers in the world. Miss Yana is the biggest influence. There are so many teachers who don’t have that deep way of connecting with students. It is that super detailed and personal approach, for each and every student that is special. I think everyone who has been through TLFCB knows this. When they attend dance classes elsewhere they go ‘Oh! I don’t get any corrections, or, the teacher didn’t say anything to me.’ Even at dance college, we didn’t get that kind of attention. You are just one in many there. You are expected to do the work yourself in a way, guided, but not with the personal attention.
Seeing that need in so many amazing students, all ready to soak everything up, I wanted to be that inspiration, that source for others.
What was the first class you taught like?
You expect me to remember that!? (laughs) I had assisted in a lot of classes with Miss Yana even before I went to dance college. I don’t really remember the very first class I taught by myself, but it was a class in Jayanagar. Those classes were started for me to teach when I came back from London. I remember it being very exciting and feeling a huge sense of responsibility for the kids who were coming to that class. Now it was my own thing, you know. These kids were coming in, never having done a step of ballet before. It was a big deal.
I have so many good memories from that first studio in Jayanagar, I enjoyed it so much. That excitement of ‘These are my kids, my responsibility; I am going to watch them grow.’
What is the difference between teaching abroad and in India?
It is hard to say because all students are very different, wherever you go in the world. I would say that here, at least before, there was more discipline than with students in the west. I think that is changing a bit now though. Kids are exposed to more things than they were, say 10 or 15 years ago, through TV and online media. It felt very different when I moved back to Sweden for a couple of years, after teaching in India. I felt like kids were more blasé about things there, but in retrospect that is a generalisation. There are kids everywhere who are so keen to learn. At the end of the day kids are kids, wherever they are. Oh! One difference is that students in Sweden are very rarely late, whereas here students are late very often!
In terms of the students themselves – most of them come as themselves, keen to learn, happy to be there and just want to dance.
What is something you wish you could tell your younger self?
Not to be so hard on myself about certain things. I don’t regret any of the decisions I’ve made so far, even though I have made some choices that I wouldn’t make now. It is all those things that lead us on our path. Yes, not be so hard on myself and to let go a bit more.
Another thing would be not to isolate myself. For example, when I went to dance college, I isolated myself. I rarely joined parties and get-togethers. I had a few good friends. Yes, that is something I would tell myself. To be a bit more social. Not to be such a hermit!
How do you make sure to keep a work- life balance?
Yoga is a big help. Sometimes to wind the day down and sometimes to wind it up.
I also try to make sure that I make time for the things I want to do outside work. Sometimes that means saying ‘I need to do nothing today because I need to relax’. So, yes, the balance sometimes involves making choices. Deciding not to go for an event or outing but stay home and chill out, watch a movie and relax.
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