Dana Cheong is a stalwart in Singapore’s high society, a style icon, a fitness trainer and a philanthropist. She’s also a wife, a mother, a daughter and, as Crystal Lee observes, someone who knows how to love.
Dana Cheong is standing between two giant strobe lights with her hands on her head. She’s wearing an Alexander McQueen dress and high jewellery pieces from Bvlgari’s Serpenti Collection. Holding the pose, she breaks into a little dance as the photographer pauses to look at his shots on the computer screen. As soon as he returns, she snaps back to business.
That insouciant bop is a glimpse of her dynamic personality: vivacious, friendly, playful, elegant and at ease with herself. She radiates warmth and light from every ounce of her being. “I believe in positivity,” she says, when we met at her studio a week before the cover shoot. “For the people I love, be it my family or friends close to my heart, I feel like I should be that pillar of light; a positive energy. But you know what? At the end of the day, the light bounces back. So I try to start a fire. If you catch it, you light up, and it will shine on me. It’s a chain reaction.”
Deep familial bonds
Therein lies Dana’s single, most important goal in life: to be a source of light for the people around her. Growing up in a tight-knit kampung community in Kuala Lumpur with three generations under one roof offered a young Dana a model of love, warmth and kinship. “Because my grandparents lived with us, our house was constantly full of people,” she recalls. “My uncles, aunties and cousins often visited. Neighbours came around with food they cooked. I was the happiest in the house, always running out to see who rang the doorbell.”
But like Ariel in The Little Mermaid, she was captivated by the world outside of her bubble. “I think reading Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five series messed up my brain a little bit,” she says with a chuckle. “I wanted to go on adventures. So when I was 12, I told my dad that I didn’t want to stay home any more. I wanted to study abroad.”
Her father, a businessman and an agent for Ford Motor, caved after a year of persuasion. At 13, she left her motherland for a secondary school education in Singapore. Then, when it was time for college, she headed to Melbourne for university. “I wasn’t quite ready to enter the workforce when I got my degree at 20 years old, so I kept on studying,” Dana adds. She was great at it too, having obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree in Logic, Philosophy; a Graduate Diploma in Operations Research; and a Master’s in Economics.
Dana was all set to start a banking career in Sydney when she met her husband, Darren, on a graduation trip with her cousin. “My cousin and Darren both went to school in Honolulu and had common friends. Then from there, there was no turning back. I packed my bags, came home and got married. It was a very drastic change, but I felt like it was time to settle down.”
So she did what her mother and grandmother had done: give her life to the family. “I was brought up in an old value system, which, I feel, influenced me,” explains the mother of a school psychologist and a Cambridge undergraduate. Does she harbour any regrets? “Not at all. I’m doing what I really, really like to do – which is to always be there for my family. Beatrice and Brandon both thanked me for the way I brought them up. Surely I must have done something right.”
Does she feel estranged from the outside world? “Just because I didn’t go out to work doesn’t mean I’m out of touch with what’s happening. I’m still very much in touch with the world,” she says. “And I feel really great that I’ve raised two amazing children who are able to contribute to society.”
Love is a many-splendoured thing
There’s this saying that goes, “To love others you must first love yourself”, and it seems like Dana’s got that all figured out. Amid providing for her family, she makes it a point to carve out time for personal indulgences and growth – most of which revolves around moving the body. Not long after the birth of her second child, she started learning pilates under Italian instructor Ivana Danielli, who introduced her to the wonders of Gyrotonic and Gyrokinesis.
At first, the mobility and strength practice was a supplement to her dance routines, which began with hip-hop and ended with competitive Latin ballroom. It was only after she hung up her dancing shoes (“the shoes, not the dancing”, she clarifies) that she took Gyrotonic and Gyrokinesis more seriously. “Competition takes a lot out of your body,” she elaborates. “It came to a point where I couldn’t go any further. So I went all-in with Gyrotonic and Gyrokinesis, taking up teacher training programmes because that’s how you’ll learn everything.”
Today, she runs hour-long, one-on-one sessions out of her studio, which she calls her “sanctuary”. Even when classes are suspended in Phase 2 (Heightened Alert), Dana still pops in every day to train. “I was in my late 20s when I first picked up Gyrotonic. And you would have thought that you know your body well after coexisting with it for decades, right? Well, no; I realised I didn’t know mine,” she adds. “See, I’m a bubbly person. I move fast and want to do many things. Gyrotonic keeps me grounded and centred. It helped me understand my body. I became more aware of my movements, positions, posture and everything else. You know, we all only have one body to carry us through life, and we should know how to utilise it, maximise it, without hurting it too much.”
As to what she puts on her body, Dana is, unsurprisingly, big on comfort and connection. “I don’t like to look like a princess or be wearing something overly elegant. Ultimately, I think one should be free, not to be constrained and bothered by what people think.” To wit, one of her favourite pieces in her jewellery collection is a chunky gold link chain necklace by Bvlgari, with an ancient coin depicting the profile of Roman Emperor Nero, bezel-set within a gold hexagon-shaped plaque. “I was a hip-hop girl, right? I fell in love with it. I also have this joke about how I went to Rome and brought back a boyfriend called Nero, and my husband was okay with it.”
Laughter comes easily with Dana. Conversation flows – and suddenly it’s almost dinner time. I feel a tinge of sadness to say goodbye. When you take the time to study someone’s life, you grow somewhat fond of them, at least I did with Dana. She has this innate ability of drawing people in like a moth to a flame, making them feel safe and warm. I tell her I’d like to try Gyrotonic and Gyrokinesis when the restrictions are lifted. She gives me her signature megawatt smile and says: “Come!”
Fashion Direction: Johnny Khoo | Art Direction: Audrey Chan | Photography: Cher Him | Fashion Styling: Jacquie Ang | Hair: Sean Ang, using Ouai | Make-up: Wee Ming, using Dior Beauty | Photography Assistance: Yang Shihui | Fashion Assistance: Viona Agustine
This story was published in the July 2021 issue of Prestige Singapore.