Prior to meeting The Débutante, I had subconsciously envisioned the group to be a posse of classy girls doing pirouettes en pointe, thanks to their super fancy name.
I knew they were training for a global competition, so I expected to find them at a nice mirrored, sprung-floor and air-conditioned dance studio fully equipped with a sound system to play music.
But au contraire, I found three of the five team members sprawled in a corner on the fifth floor of SCAPE — yes, the youth-targeted mall whose open fifth-floor space is popular with amateur dance groups. That night, the area was occupied with at least four other groups of dancers practising various routines as well.
Two more girls showed up a few minutes later, rushing in from work, just a few minutes shy of 7:30pm, when the group's rehearsal was slated to begin.
And as they settled into this ad-hoc space (which they have to chope every time they convene for practice, by the way), eating and stretching, almost effortlessly pulling their legs into splits, they all looked very much like your typical Singaporean girls-next-door hanging out together on a normal weeknight.
I certainly would not have concluded from just looking at them that this group of girls will next week be competing for the championship title at the United Dance Organisation Street Dance World Championships (UDO) 2018 — only the world's largest global street dance competition.
But that impression changed in a split second before they even started their dancing proper — as soon as they started warm-ups, involving rapid and intricate hand movements, I discovered why they were, standard-wise, undoubtedly head and shoulders above the other random pockets of dance groups there, and in all likelihood, among the best in Singapore.
Just watch their performance in the finals of a local dance competition two years ago, to give you an idea of what I saw:
Emerged champions in Australian leg
After participating in various local competitions — winning some, and making it to the finals in others — the group entered the UDO's qualifying event in Melbourne, Australia in July 2017.
Despite being the only Asian participants and having drastically different styles from the typical urban/street dance crews, they beat all odds to emerge as champions there:
And this win gave them a ticket to the UDO World Championships.
But owing to various changing circumstances and instability of schedules, it was not until earlier this year when the girls finally made the decision to take up the invitation, and represent Singapore to compete in the UDO Worlds (what it's referred to for short), happening in Glasgow, Scotland on Aug. 23.
They're not sure if they're the first Singaporean group to qualify and compete in history, but they'll be the only ones there this year.
Which, once you appreciate how they came together, is no mean feat.
Dance mates since primary school
Four of the girls — Chelsea Monteiro, Suzanne Tan, Angelene Wong and Jocelyn Loong — have been ballet dance mates and schoolmates since their primary school days.
The fifth, Krisha Balakrishnan, met Monteiro in Ngee Ann Polytechnic's hip hop dance group.
In 2014, The Débutante was formed with choreographer Amin Alifin as their mentor. Together and under his guidance, they have competed in a total of seven local dance competitions, including Singapore Dance Delight (Volume 6) in 2016 and the All Babes Cineleisure Dance 2017.
First international competition together
The UDO, however, will mark a big milestone for the crew as it is the first time all five of them will be participating together in an international competition.
Previously, Loong said they only took part in local competitions or joined competitions with just a few of the members representing the team.
"UDO Worlds is special to us as a group and more importantly, a relatively new space that not many street/urban dancers have ventured into — the European scene."
Needless to say, they're in for a tough time — but the girls assure us they're looking forward to the challenge, especially with the guidance
A distinctive and "unclassifiable" style
Ever since Amin took The Débutante under his wings, he tells me he has seen them progress and grow into their name.
"Débutante" is a French word that refers to a young woman making her first public appearance. It can also be interpreted as a girl maturing into a young woman.
"When they first started, I did everything. Literally everything, from gluing rhinestones on their shoes down to the specific makeup details. After a while, I realise they have matured as artists. They may not be 100 per cent there yet, but they will get better."
What is now called "the Débutante style" first developed when Amin incorporated exercises and techniques from various genres and styles and introduced it to the girls during their training.
And in the course of their rigorous practice sessions, the girls now all have a common understanding of this in the way they work together to create visuals.
Only started preparing for competition in end-May
Just like how it often is for competitive athletes starting out in Singapore, the girls have no financial support from any organisations or the government, and are but part-time dancers with full-time day jobs in the art industry.
Wong, in particular, is currently pursuing a master's degree in Fashion Studies at Parsons Paris, and so the group was only able to start preparing for the competition proper together when she returned for her summer break in end-May.
Loong tells me the girls overcame these challenges by doing much of their discussions online. Over the past two months, they progressed from meeting two or three times a week to four or five practices every week, as the competition approaches.
"We used to do this when we were all in three different schools. I think we’ve been working with each other for so long that we have learnt that if there's time to practice, then that’s top priority. No going out with boyfriends or anything of that sort."
The choreography that they will be performing has been in the works for the past two years and is mainly choreographed by Amin, who specialises in waacking.
It will see them pushing the boundaries of waacking, contemporary, jazz and a variety of other genres.
According to Loong, Amin's choreography for The Débutante was inspired by the strong yet subtle aura of the triads and developed the concept of the dance through movement.
As for the girls, their personas in the piece also parallel the subtle strength of femininity, which they hope to bring out and portray.
Anywhere they can see their reflection is a practice venue
Given their financial circumstances, the girls paid for everything themselves — their costumes, for instance, and they also paid their own way through their Australia competition. Because renting a studio for practices adds significantly to their costs, finding locations to practice used to be one of their main challenges.
And we say used to, not because they have since found a studio sponsor or found the resources to finance use of their own space, but because they've gotten used to the situation.
The group shares with me that they practice alongside other dance groups at central public places like SCAPE, the corridors of Singapore Management University, or indeed just about anywhere with a sufficiently large reflective surface for them to see themselves in.
And while these places may seem inconvenient and uncomfortable, practising in the presence of other dance groups and in open spaces has eventually been an advantage for The Débutante. Loong adds:
"We've had experiences of us practicing next to a group of friends and it helps to feed off the energy when we get really, really tired. Sometimes we've also had chances to be inspired by a random b-boy and incorporate it into our choreography."
Friendship comes first
Of course, like any collective of people with different ideas, there will be days where they may not be on the same page.
And fortunately, these girls will make it a point to talk or even cry it out to solve any disagreements because, for them, their friendship takes precedence over dance.
Krisha emphasises that because of the "genuine love" they have for one another, she's confident that they will work well together in the long run:
"If I don't want to see them for every single day of my life, this wouldn't have happened."
Thankful for support
To aid them financially for the competition, the independent group started a Kickstarter campaign late last month to raise S$6,000 — the amount they worked out that they would need for some of their expenses for the competition — and reached their target earlier this week.
The funds they raised will cover their flights, accommodation and S$150 for each of the dancers' passes in the competition.
They also rented a studio and conducted a fundraising dance class on Saturday, Aug. 12, which gave them a small S$65 boost (after deducting the rent).
However, the group emphasises, the purpose of the class wasn't mainly to raise funds, but rather to spread the love and appreciation they have for the support they garnered from their families and friends.
"Having the class helps us to be more connected to people and let them experience the full 'us'."
Mission: to be the dance equivalent of the Mona Lisa
The girls see their decision to compete at the world stage in the UDO championships as a commitment not just for them, but for the Singapore dance scene. Loong says:
"It'll be great if we make Singapore proud (by winning the competition). But if we don't, then we know that we've done what we wanted to do, which is to bring our Débutante style there."
And while they are still living in the moment and have not thought of what they would want to achieve in the long run, Tan shares that her personal goal for The Débutante is to be like the dance parallel of Leonardo da Vinci's famous painting, the Mona Lisa.
"If people would be curious enough to travel down to experience watching us dance, that would be the ideal."
Top image screenshot via RPProds' Youtube page