Singapore's First Ballroom Dance Studio
As far as we know, ballroom dancing started in Singapore in the 1920s with foreign caucasians organizing ad hoc dance classes here & there and even in hotels. My grandfather Mr Kwan Yin Siong housed Singapore's first ballroom dance studio in early 1930s known as "Collick's Rhythm Dancing Club" taught by Mr George Collick himself. During that era, it was unacceptable for a gentleman like my grandfather to teach dance even though he was a ballroom dance champion multiple times, so he rented out to Collick. Grandfather's dance wishes was finally fulfilled by us Robin & Pele in this 20th century by setting up DanceThrob RpMerleon Studios.
Singapore First Dance Association
My grandfather was Collick's best student and after many years, he decided to retire from ballroom dance competition. "The Dance Association of Malaya" was formed on 4 April 1940 at the Happy World Nite Club with 80 dancers, of which Mr Collick was the vice-president. In May 1946 at the Happy World Cabaret Hall, "The Singapore Association of Teachers of Dancing" was formed with Mr Collick as President.
1930s to 1940s Ballroom Dance Places
Through the years Collick danced with many ladies for demonstration & charity balls and one of them was Mdm Jenny Quek in 1947. Collick also involved his students in these performances and one of them was Mr Low Poh San from 1946 onwards. These performances were frequently held in the "Great World Cabaret", "Liberty Cabaret" & "Odeon Cabaret" and were under Collick's name to introduce ballroom dancing & bring in students for Collick studio. The first ballroom dance competition organized by the association was held in 1948 with 3 couples from 2 states in which Singapore lost to Penang. The association continued to organize local competitions once a year.
Collick's Students Became First Singaporean Ballroom Dance Teachers
The still in existence but now defunct "Pohsan Dance Studio" was later set up when Mr Low Poh San & his wife Jenny Quek won local champions (1948, 1950-1953). At the same time many other local champions were churned out by Collicks including Mr Steven Kok & his wife Vivien Kok (World Championship representatives once in approximately 1960s), who upon Collicks' death in 1957 eventually purchased the right to continue operating & teaching in my grandfather's house till 1990s. Another Collick's student, Mr Stephen Han also set up the "Gaylin Dance Studio" in late 1960s. These became the first batch of local Singaporean ballroom dance teachers.
With the popularity of social dancing at that time, there were many places with large dance floors (easily 10 times the size of today's miniature disco dance floors) to dance in. Places like Great World, New World, Happy World Cabaret, Singapore Tel, Westpoint Gardens were the places to go. Social dances like the Rock n Roll, Cha Cha Cha, Twist, the A-Go-Go, etc were the in dances at that time.
In those good old days, most teachers learnt from books and through self experimentation. Techniques and styles learnt were closely guarded secrets, only meant to be displayed on special occasions for fear of copying of steps. Most people learnt dancing from dance schools or friends.
In the 1970s, some dance teachers started teaching social dancing at community centres. This made social dancing more accessible and affordable to the masses. The 1970s also marked the era of movies like Saturday Night Fever which popularised dances like disco rock and line dances.
The hot places to dance in the 1980s were the Heartthrob at Melia @Scotts (which was packed every night and had a big dance floor), Duke Hotel (which had a large dance floor but not much atmosphere), Derby Pub (good music but rather awkward shaped dance floor), D'Cockpit (a bit old but very popular), Casual Club, Lido Palace etc. Sad to say, all of them could not make money from "poor" dancers who were content to dance the whole night with just one cheap drink. And so eventually all of them gave up the concept of ballroom dancing and switched to disco/karaoke etc.
Ballroom dancing got a big boost in the mid 1980s when the Singapore Goverment's Social Development Unit and Social Development Section started ballroom dance classes for its members. Soon after, ballroom dancing got into some limelight with ballroom performances at the National Day Parade (Pele performed there) and Chingay Festival. Even more exclusive performances were made by young Singapore girls at the Debutante Ball graced by the President of Singapore.
Strictly Ballroom 90s
With the popularity of ballroom dancing, many schools and even the People's Association organised competitions. International competitors started appearing in local ballroom championships and it was a "wow" if a local pair got into the finals and we, Robin & Pele was honoured to be the only local pair in the final, beating many local veterans in Pre-Amateur. Going to our neighbouring countries to compete became quite common and we won numerous authentic pewter trophies (Latin & Standard) in Malaysia competitions. By the 1990s, one could compete almost every month of the year.
With most places given up with ballroom dancing, only Club 5, Music World and D'Cockpit remained by 1996. In 1996, Dynasty Ballroom started ballroom dancing and quickly became the most popular spot in Singapore for ballroom dancing, despite being a night club & choked full of cigarette smoke, extremely unhealthy. This is one of the few places where competition dancers are seen in public. In 1997, Cockpit Hotel was sold and subsequently, D'Cockpit was closed down. Sadly, even Dynasty Ballroom closed down eventually.
21st century Ballroom
With the advent of cheap air travel and the internet, good quality training for local instructors became more accessible. Many started going overseas for training while some started learning through the various forms of media available (DVDs, internet, etc). Dance standards improved tremendously in this era.
With growing affluence, many social and country clubs also started ballroom classes, parties and practice nites. The People Association also have many Community Centres offering classes and practice nites.
Sad, in this era, very few commercial places for ballroom dancing were left. Only places like Club 5, Club 5 2, Le Danz and some other places remain.
Article first published on 30 May 1997 & now updated with historical factual inputs from Pele Chee-Lim's research.