PJKITA > PJ’s Pioneer Dance Establishment: The Federal Academy of Ballet

PJ’s Pioneer Dance Establishment: The Federal Academy of Ballet

Just over five decades ago, Lee Lee Lan started teaching ballet from a small room in the back of her house in PJ. Today, the Federal Academy of Ballet stands tall as one of the city’s – and arguably the country’s – finest dance establishments.

Text and photos by Jonathan Lim
Video by Sheril A. Bustaman

It’s 10 in the morning here at Wisma FAB in Section 14, and ballet lessons are well underway. The sweet sounds of Nigel Gaynor’s rendition of Chant Sans Parole gently fills the air. Parents of the younger ballerinas are seen seated just outside the studios – some occasionally peeking through the studio door windows to catch a glimpse of their child.

The 5-storey Wisma FAB on Jalan 14/22 officially opened over two decades ago, but the academy’s rich history actually dates back to 1967, with its earliest students beginning their journey through ballet in a church and school hall. With four other branches set up throughout the Klang Valley, the academy has undoubtedly come a long way.


Humble beginnings

For founder, teacher and choreographer, Lee Lee Lan – setting up the business in Petaling Jaya made sense because she was a resident and at that time, there were no ballet schools in the area. Having obtained a membership in the Royal Academy of Dance (London), she started teaching when she was in Form 6 and taught throughout her university years at University Malaya where she majored in History and Economics.


“I always remember the phrase: Hard work never killed anybody,”  Lee Lee Lan, Principal of FAB.


Her journey in ballet began when she was about 10. When she was 12 and living in Melaka, she recalls paying three dollars for a three-hour bus ride to Kuala Lumpur just to take ballet lessons. She had her mother worried about her studies, but Lee never had trouble excelling in whatever she invested herself in.

Reflecting upon the early days of the academy, she said, “When I started, I started in a very small way. I just used the room in the back of my house. As things grew bigger, I rented a house and turned the rooms into ballet studios. And when that grew bigger I rented shophouses. But to me, it was never work – it was always play.”


“I try to get the girls to enjoy and instill positivity in them. I try to encourage them because with encouragement, they push themselves a little bit harder,”  teacher Michelle Lo putting her girls through the paces.


A beloved figure in the local dance community, the charming Lee has been tireless in spreading the beauty and grace of ballet – and one would not be off the mark in attributing its proliferation in Petaling Jaya and the neighbouring towns to her work. While she has recently retired and handed most of the academy’s operations to her son Larry, she remains an ever present figure.

“I always tell my students. It’s fun, but it’s hard work.”


A multi-generational legacy

When asked about what she feels sets FAB apart from the rest, Michelle Lo, one of the academy’s senior teachers, puts it down to the level of exposure that the students get. “We organise a lot of concerts. And we often try to get scholarships for our students to go abroad. Lee also brings in many visiting teachers, so that’s where we learn as well.”

It was on her way home from the school bus that Michelle first saw FAB’s early ballet studio along Jalan Changgai just opposite Assunta. As a young girl, seeing other girls in leotards piqued her curiosity, and after much pestering, her parents finally allowed her to take up dancing. She joined the academy, completed a diploma in dance and has taught at the academy ever since.


“In school, when it comes to interacting with people, I’ve gotten the confidence through dance – through ballet and expression – to come forward and be myself,” Nadya Woon, who joined the academy when she was 5.


She was formerly taught by Lee herself, and Michelle credits her for being the kind disciplinarian that she is. “You have to be on time. She works really hard – strict, but very kind. She pushes us to achieve as much as possible, and we’re grateful for that,” she says. This intimate cycle has become defining of the academy: students eventually graduate to become teachers, and they themselves have students who become teachers.

Michelle adds, “In ballet, we have standards and we want to go as high as possible. And through this training, we hope that our students will carry on this approach when they enter the working world – that they will always push themselves to do better.”


Apart from a variety of dance classes, the academy also offers music lessons, specifically piano and guitar.


Lee teaching a primary class in one of the first branches of the school, circa 1967. These little snippets of the past offer both students and teachers a glimpse of how far their academy has come.


Teacher Regina Joyce checks on the footwork of her students.