‘They are all winners in our eyes’: How competing in SYF helped Pathlight students build confidence and resilience

SINGAPORE: As the thumping beat of the music reached its crescendo, the 16 dancers froze on stage, some with arms outstretched in a balance, others crouching and supporting the weight of their friends.

There was complete silence as the stage lights went out. Then, thunderous applause and cheers from the parents in the audience as they waved their star-shaped signs, each carefully hand-lettered with encouraging messages: Be strong and courageous. Press on to the goal. I can do all things if I try.

“I’m so proud of them!” One parent was heard as the house lights went up and the dancers ran off the stage.

With their bright eyes and carefully made-up faces, the 16 dancers radiated excitement and joy as they walked back on stage to more cheers and applause.

It was the culmination of months of long practices and burning muscles as they pushed themselves again and again, to execute the required dance moves with the precision and grace required of the art form.

The day also marked a milestone for the dancers. It was the first time that these students from autism-focused school Pathlight School were taking part in the Singapore Youth Festival (SYF) Arts Presentation. It was also the first time that the presentation was opened up to all Special Education schools.

Alief 3 Star-shaped signs with encouraging messages were prepared prior to the performance for Pathlight parents to hold up. (Photo: Alif Amsyar) 

GOING HEAD TO HEAD WITH OTHER SCHOOLS 

Schools taking part in the SYF Arts Presentation are judged by industry professionals and conferred certificates of distinction, accomplishment or commendation. It is the hallmark of all secondary school performing arts groups in Singapore, according to Tricia Goh, one of the teachers-in-charge of Pathlight’s Dance Talent Development Programme.

“Our students have mostly done performances – things like the Purple Parade, where the stage isn’t as big as this,” she said. “So this is the first time they are performing on such a big stage, and competing with other schools – and mainstream schools, in fact.”

Ms Goh added that all schools taking part – whether special or mainstream – are judged according to the same criteria.

“We are going head to head with all the other schools,” she said. “I think that’s the real hallmark of inclusiveness, where you don’t belittle those with special needs, but you give them the chance to show you that they can do what you can do as well.”

“This is a chance for our students to showcase their talent and to show Singapore and the world that they can do the same things that other people can.”

Alief 4 Pathlight students performing on stage for their SYF Arts Presentation dance item. (Photo: Alif Amsyar) 

HARD WORK AND DISCIPLINE

Taking part in SYF might be an opportunity the school was excited about, but Ms Goh admitted that there were some concerns that the students might not be able to cope with the additional demands and long practice sessions.

“In general, people with autism tend to have poorer motor skills, or some coordination challenges,” she said. “So to get them to do dance movements that are technical was already extra from what we expect for most of them.”

“We were worried that they’ll be tired and stressed out, and they won’t be able to cope with the extra practices and the intensity of SYF,” she added. Students first began rehearsing in January, with practices held twice a week. Two weeks prior to the performance on Tuesday (Apr 9), practices became more frequent – four times a week.

Extra hours aside, the students were also held to a high level of discipline during practice, according to Ms Sharon Liew, a professional dance trainer who worked with the students.

“If we’re working with any mainstream group preparing for SYF … I think it would be that kind of hard work,” said Ms Liew, who is also the principal of her own dance school, Dance Spectrum International.

“They need to follow certain rules, and we push their boundaries to a level where most people would feel uncomfortable,” she added. “But they have risen to our standards, and we’re really proud of them and what they’ve achieved over this SYF period.”  

“Regardless of the outcome, they are all winners in our eyes.”

And from the parents’ reaction to the performance on stage, it is clear that they felt the same way.

MORE THAN LEARNING TO DO A SPLIT

The jubilant expressions on the students’ faces as they posed for a photo, proudly flourishing their drum sticks, was a far cry from the scene at Pathlight’s dance studio just a few hours earlier.

Their faces were screwed up in concentration, and sweat dripped down their faces as Ms Liew, clearly audible above the thumping music, urged the students to focus as they went through their final practice session.

Alief 2 Pathlight students doing one final practice just a few hours before their performance. (Photo: Gaya Chandramohan) 

Among them was 20-year-old Alief Fiqhry Ayob, a Year 9 student with dreams of becoming a dance instructor. He moved around easily among his friends as they did their warm-ups, correcting their posture and supporting them in push-ups.

“I can do a split,” he said, proudly demonstrating his skills. “It’s painful, and at first, I could only do it until my ankle … now I can do this.”

Alief admitted that it was challenging being part of SYF, pointing out that the stage was much larger than any other stage he and his peers had performed on before.

“But the more I practice, the fewer mistakes there are,” he said, smiling confidently.  

With just a few short hours to go before the performance, Alief’s confidence and can-do attitude is heartening. But as those around him said, he had not always been like this.

“When he first came in, Alief was very quiet, and found it difficult to make friends,” said Ms Liew, who has worked with Alief for seven years. “But over the years he’s learnt to open up, communicate, and make friends without feeling too awkward.”

Alief was one of the first participants in Pathlight’s Dance Talent Development Programme, one of the school’s signature programmes. As part of the programme, students are trained by professional dance trainers such as Ms Liew, and given opportunities to develop and realise their potential, attaining dance certifications.

Over the years, Alief has achieved far more than learning how to do a split: He has become far more sociable, seen his posture improve and even lost a lot of weight.

Alief 5 Alief has dreams of becoming a dance instructor when he graduates from school. (Photo: Alif Amsyar) 

“He’s become vain,” said Alief’s mother, Aini Defahri, as she playfully tugged at his son’s school pants to show how loose they had become. “He keeps weighing himself every night, and he’s afraid to get fat.”

“He enjoys dancing and he will always come back and tell me about what he did … Ibu, I danced in front of the Prime Minister, and I took a picture with him,” she said.

Despite the punishing hours of rehearsals, Mdm Aini said she has never heard him say he is tired.

“From Monday to Sunday, he is packed with activities,” she said, pointing to his part-time job, baking classes and external dance classes he takes as a hobby. “That’s why when he gets home, I will let him rest.”

“But he’s a very good boy, and knows his responsibilities … even after he comes back, he will wash any dishes in the sink, and wipe the kitchen top and gas stove,” she added.

“If he wants to be a dance instructor, I will support him all the way,” she said. “I am so proud of all his achievements.”