Mum, Madonna, Michelle, Michelle and Misty. On International Women’s Day, five women that have shaped my life.

What makes me who I am? Or maybe, who makes me who I am? Or even, without whom would I not be where I am today? My Mum. Obvious in a biological sense but uncompromisingly so in every other way; my Mum loves me unconditionally, drops her life for me, encourages me to be my best self. And the most ingenious part: she does all this while teaching me not to take it for granted, by widening my horizons so I can take in the whole picture. I can see how lucky I am; I can see what sacrifices it takes to build a relationship like ours. I know the three hours of sleep for weeks necessary to work and earn enough to take me to international ballet competitions while also being educated on films like Casino, Monster’s Ball and To Die For. I know who’s arms scrape me back up when I’ve been trodden down while also running along the red clay rooftops in Dubrovnik and exploring the magic realism of Gaudi in Barcelona. I know who’s advice I value the most while also talking about everything and nothing, usually over doughnuts. I say thank you to my Mum whenever I can but it feels arbitrary. Nothing will ever repay her for her kindness, commitment and selflessness she never stops giving and the illumination she imparts on the rocky trek I’m attempting to carve out of the mountainside for myself. Without my Mum, there is no me; we are a team that encourage each other to learn, progress and realise our dreams.

Eight years old, straining against the tides of people swarming into the arena, clinging onto my Mum’s arm. A guy walks past in a gold pointy bra. Someone’s selling cowboy hats at one of the entrances. We get a couple; one for me, one for Mum. As we take to our seats I notice white and red bits of paper here and there on the floor. Just as I’m beginning to collect some, a women with an official t-shirt on tells us it’s ok, loads more’ll rain down at the end and there’ll be plenty for me to gather up. Mum tells me to stand on my chair, that way I’ll see better. My cowboy hat’s fixed firmly on my head. Waiting. Commotion here and there. The people behind us ask if I can lose the hat. And then it begins. The lights are down. Enormous screens flicker to life. A roar erupts from the belly of the beast: the fans who have come to see their queen. I don’t know if I was aware what true icon meant back then, but I sure knew I was about to be in presence of phenomenon. Something was happening, lights were sweeping the arena from all angles, strange images flashing on the screens. And a voice telling a story. The roar intensifies. It’s happening now. The lights align, a familiar beat kicks in. A column rises from the stage floor and there she is. Absolute hysteria. I’m pretty sure some folks will have fainted at that point but, from my small platform, everything seemed to merge into background noise, for all my attention was focused on a woman I’ve grown up admiring and respect beyond measure. Because even at such a young age I was aware, at a subconscious level at least, that here is a woman who shatters conventions. Here is a woman who tests what it means to be a woman. Here is a performer, a singer, dancer, visionary. And most importantly, here is a woman who has paved the way for so may other artists by standing for what she believes in; unflinchingly speaking out for those without her platform and being unafraid to speak her mind. She makes some uncomfortable because she has never waited for someone else’s permission to do what she feels is artistically fulfilling, authentic or progressive. She inspires me to be brave. I still feel as in awe of her as I did then, at eight years old. Madonna. The legend that will live forever.

‘I stand for freedom of expression, doing what you believe in, and going after your dreams.’ Madonna

I have been known to cry on plenty of planes, but rarely at films, and only really on planes flying the London Moscow route. Yet here I was, flying from Beijing to Shenzhen, watching a film and truthfully unable to stop the tears from flowing. That film was Crazy Rich Asians; the first film since 1993 to boast an entirely Asian cast and creators. I later discovered that many people of Asian heritage had similar reactions despite the film being in fact a romantic comedy (really, it should’ve taken a harrowing drama where everyone dies at the end to make me cry so much). Upon seeing CRA, I felt an indescribable tug at all the strings and sinews of my body- there are even people in that film who look just like me; mixed heritage Asians, something a little here and there. Never have I felt so happy to be so well represented in such a mainstream way. And then it came flooding back to me; Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon…a masterpiece, and tying together the then and now in two brilliantly scene stealing performances (and countless in between)- Michelle Yeoh. She is the epitome of strength and cool; a champion amongst Asian women. Why is it that these emotions I felt seemed to be rushing forth from behind a closed off door? Why do I not hear and see more of Michelle in the same vain as the Hollywood actors at the top of their game? Two questions, same answer. Today’s artistic sphere is still dominated by a white male preponderance; representation of Asian folk has been little and often overlooked along with many other groups of people that do not fall into said pigeonhole. With Michelle’s entrance that opens CRA, exuding class and unashamed Asian pride, it was as if she dropped the mic that is a reminder of her watershed legacy and gives hope that the artistic industries are now slowly but surely being diversified. Now is the time to recognise the idol that is Michelle Yeoh.

I feel an innate empathy with Michelle Obama. I’m currently reading her memoir, ‘Becoming’, and its prosaic documentation in its breezy viable prose is winning me over. Because I respect her resolve. I respect her determination- not a blind dogged determination, but a calculated, intelligent one; she is aware of her shortcomings and resourceful in identifying the next step upwards. I have always respected her. But what has significantly drawn my attention, is her ability to grasp the opportunity; leave the door open and she not only steps in, she heads straight to the kitchen, cooks a feast, throws a party. I hope to integrate this ideology into my own life’s trajectory, whereby the goal I envision for myself is achievable by taking ‘everything given to you’ and creating it myself. I am nothing if not determined, and Michelle’s words prove there is no shame in that. Ambitions, I have always thought, are there to be achieved and here I see perhaps the definitive example of my inkling in evidence.

‘Life is short and not to be wasted.’  Michelle Obama

Misty Copeland has been in my peripheral for years – how could she not? She’s the first black principal dancer of American Ballet Theatre, an advocate for diverse aesthetics in the ballet industry and a positive energising presence in the commercial world. When I first heard of Misty, however, I was still training at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy and feeling I had much to catch up on, both technique-wise and about the goings on in the ballet industry in general. To me, she was an American ballerina, far removed from my own experiences, a name I sometimes heard mentioned in good light or bad.  The good and bad light ranged from inspirational to downright vitriolic and, in both cases, has intensified since; to rise from such friction amongst the attitudes towards her person, into the self-made role Misty embodies today is in itself an achievement in resilience and determination. Yet what impresses me the most, and what finally drew my full focus towards her, is the representation she stands for; she challenged, and continues to challenge, the conventions of classical dance. She is proof that a restrictive sense of purity does nothing but choke our art form; when naysayers cry that she doesn’t fit the mould of a classical dancer she hits harder against that glass ceiling and is currently one of the leading members of the artistic community. She is a minority; a woman of colour in a traditionally white profession with a sporty physique, where the norm in recent times has been for dancers to be the more angular side of slim. I relate to the struggles she encounters. I too am a minority; and I was told on numerous occasions that my body is not suitable for dance.

An article on Misty in The Guardian sums up her progressive viewpoint on gender and race in ballet. In response to making change in the world of classical dance, she says “It’s like, ‘Don’t fix what isn’t broken.’ But in my opinion, it is broken. The times are changing and we have to catch up. I think the more we bring in newer people with fresh ideas behind the scenes – artistic directors, choreographers – those things will change…I think we could have stories that really reflect different cultures in a fresh way, you know?”

‘Ballet is worldly, so let’s represent what we all are.’ Misty Copeland

When I saw Misty dance last summer in New York, any fears that she wasn’t going to live up to the hype around her name and the winds of change amongst the dance industry she signifies were instantly laid to rest. She is a rare thing; her star quality doesn’t blind her technique and artistry, rather that is why she is a star and she possess the generosity to use that power in advancing the ballet world to a more inclusive place.

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These women, in particular, have been key in inspiring me to take the directions I have taken so far; they are women who’s wisdom I pay tribute to for their fearlessness and principles in creating a world they believe in. The world, too, is abundant in strong inspirational women; consistently resilient, determined, capable of the greatest achievements. When I see what we are capable of, I am propelled forwards with ideas, aspirations and hope. In doing so, I aim to inspire other girls myself- a sort of mobius strip of talent, energy and progression. Here’s to the women of the world! May you continue to defy limitations and celebrate not just on 8th March, but every day, because, really, every day is International Women’s Day.

Orange Blossom and Maple Amaretti Biscuits

I include this recipe as a perfect accompaniment to any celebration, whereby the aim is to make something special but not too elaborate that you are forced to miss any of the fun. As with many of my favourite bakes, I’ve adapted this from my bible, Sweet, by Helen Goh and Yotam Ottolenghi. The original happens to be grain free anyway, though I substituted the sugar and honey for my preferred maple syrup. I adapt all recipes to my grain and refined sugar free diet which works for me as a dancer, but don’t feel the need to follow suit! Check out Sweet for the unembellished version.

Makes 20

200g ground almonds

135ml maple syrup

1 tsp grated lemon zest

1 tsp grated orange zest

2 egg whites from medium sized eggs

1/8 tsp almond extract

1/4 tsp orange blossom water

100g flaked almonds

Combine the almonds and both zests in a large bowl. Set aside.

Place the egg whites in the bowl of an electric mixer with the whisk attachment in place and whisk on medium speed. Meanwhile, heat the maple syrup in a small saucepan over a medium heat. Just before it comes to the boil, increase the whisk speed to medium-high white the syrup boils for 30 seconds and the egg whites form soft peaks. Remove the syrup from the heat and carefully pour into the egg whites, down the side of the bowl, in a continuous stream, whisking all the time. Once fully incorporated, continue whisking for a minute until cooled. Stop the mixer and change from whisk to paddle attachment.

Add the almond and zest mix to the egg whites along with the almond extract and orange blossom water. Mix slowly until it comes together into a soft paste. Transfer to the fridge for an hour.

Once chilled, divide the mixture into four equal portions. Sprinkle each with a quarter of the flaked almonds, then, on a clean work surface, roll out into a roughly 30 cm log, 1.5 cm wide, covered with almonds.

Line two baking trays with baking parchment or silicon liners. Lift the logs onto the trays (two logs to each tray) using a long spatula or clean ruler. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours.

When ready to bake, preheat the oven  to 190 degrees Celsius. Remove the trays from the fridge and cut each log into five smaller logs of roughly 6cm. Bake for 15 mins. Remove from oven and leave to cool a little, though they are so good slightly warm.

 

 

Eat and celebrate!