Resilient, strong, mama-bear to four kiddos and founder of Hong Kong’s first performing arts conservatory for kids…
If there’s one thing you need to know about Sonia Lee Nazzer, it’s that she is not to be underestimated. Having experienced many different challenges and roadblocks in her life, she has always risen above and conquered any obstacle in her way (including crossing dangerous guerrilla territory borders in South America!). This is a woman you definitely want on your side. Her warm and sweet personality, coupled with an inner strength that she simply exudes is aspirational – she’s a true fighter in every sense. She is a mama to four amazing kiddos (Caleb, Elijah, Christmas and Finn), runs a thriving performing arts school and has recently gotten engaged (congratulations!). Sonia is an inspiration to mamas everywhere. Read more in this edition of That Mama as Sonia invites us into her home, shares about the most challenging part of parenting, the worst advice she’s ever received and what inappropriate word her daughter used to love yelling out loud!
Tell us about yourself and how you found yourself in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong was one of those sliding doors moments where you find yourself in a place you didn’t mean to be, but something about it takes your breath away and suddenly that other plan you had didn’t seem so perfect anymore. When I landed in Hong Kong on my way up north to visit Tibet, I was traveling with a 6-month-old baby and was ready for an adventure. Hong Kong totally took me by surprise with it’s vibrance and the possibilities of the place. We ended up staying two and half weeks here instead of visiting Tibet.
Describe your personality with three words.
Persistent; Empathetic; Passionate.
Tell us how you got into the performing arts and dance?
My mother was a huge fan of dance. She always told me how she would have loved to have the opportunity when she was young to do dance classes. At the age of 5, she started me in tap and ballet, and I never looked back. I was completely taken by the stage and the stage, I like to think, was taken by me. My parents were ultra supportive without being pushy, and quite disciplined without having that draconian feeling. I was promptly pulled out of Ballet Competitions when I refused to practice my routines; a move I instantly regretted but they were firm, which I came to respect. My motto is: creativity, style and discipline because all three of those elements are necessary in the arts.
What inspired you to start the Academy of Jazz?
I completed my Grade 8 Trinity College of London Speech and Drama examinations at 15, and had completed my solo seal Jazz Dance professional qualifications early at 16. I felt frustrated that there wasn’t a performing arts high school where you could focus and train on your art of choice and do half day schooling followed by a genuine internship under the tutelage of real experts in the industry. Why did school and the performing arts have to be so separated?
My passion for dance and drama became a passion for education when I moved to Bogota Colombia at 21 to be a volunteer teacher for a period of 2 years. I truly believe I was influenced in my teaching skills by watching my mother who used to tutor kids in our home. I was also very blessed to have her input as I overcame the challenges of dyslexia as a child. I also believe that my early dance experiences helped me in so many ways. I had so much more body confidence, poise, agility, and readiness for whatever life through my way. Dance was as much about learning to love and express myself as it was about the technique.
After teaching in my own Dance Academy in Hong Kong for 10 years already, I had finally realised my dream of opening Hong Kong’s first Arts Conservatory. My desire to share the love of education fine arts, dance and drama with Hong Kong’s littlest artists came out of a challenging situation I was facing. My daughter, Christmas Love has a very particular creative streak which she will not allow to shine unless she feels the environment is free enough or she trusts those she is with. I realised the school environment she was in was actually damaging her confidence. The teachers always told me she was well behaved, but that in itself was a clue that something was amiss. At home she can be a right imp so to be told how perfectly quiet she was at school rang warning bells for me.
After researching, I decided I wanted to open an extension of our current Performing Arts Programmes at Academy of Jazz and thus Academy of Jazz Conservatory was born in June 2017. We are currently running a Reggio-inspired education program in Sai Kung 8.30 – 11.30am for 3 – 6 year olds incorporating the best of performing and fine arts, with the best curriculum for early learning. The kids absolutely love it!
What were some challenges you faced when launching your own business/passion project?
It’s been 10 years since I opened Academy of Jazz in Hong Kong. Oh there have been challenges. I have had people I worked closely with stab me in the back and try to steal the business. My response was pretty kickass when I look back; but in the moment I suffered greatly. I have always been mistaken for someone who is sweet and maybe not going to fight back. What those people don’t realise is that I have an iron core. I have been held at gunpoint. I have crossed dangerous guerrilla territory borders between Colombia and Venezuela with a one legged “translator” who spoke no English. I have stood up to bullies and thieves and very rarely been afraid. Life is too short to spend it being a coward. I have had my livelihood stolen from me and trusted I will be ok one day somehow if I keep my chin up, move on, and keep doing what I do best with a smile on my face. They say the ultimate revenge is to be happy. The best part of that is you attract good things back into your life for every difficulty you may face along the way. Once upon a time, I used to care what people thought of me, one of the most powerful things I learnt in doing my business, is that it’s not my business what people think of me, it is what I think of me that matters. I love what I do, and I believe it shows.
Have your kids caught the same passion for dance as you? How has your love for dance influenced your children?
My children are each unique and beautiful creations. They have all had the opportunity to dance. My eldest took to it like a fish to water, grinning from ear to ear after every class. My second eldest used to hide under a chair and hold on with a white knuckled grip while I tried to pry him out to enjoy the lesson. The younger two are just starting, and as they both attend Academy of Jazz Conservatory they are getting such a natural and normal exposure to all the arts it’s hard to say which they prefer most just yet.
How are all your children different and what do you love most about each of them?
You could not get four more different children! Caleb is the strong, handsome, emotional and vulnerable type. He is an exceptional actor with a strong intuition for social situations and assessing what is happening around him. My second eldest Elijah, is my most visual learner with the quirkiest sense of humour. He has this crazy memory for every visual detail and has a strong leaning towards the fine arts. As a less extroverted child, he tends to have the most meaningful chats with you and is the kid who gets along with everyone with a “who cares what they think attitude” to life. Christmas is my most reserved in public, only giving of herself with those she deems as safe. She has an outrageous imagination full of creatures of all kinds. Her love for animals is evident in her ability to bond and attach herself to every single animal no matter how bug-like or potentially deadly it is! Finn is our stubborn, hilarious, lovable, ball of fun. He is a million miles a minute and can kick and catch a ball better than me.
How has being a mom changed the way you view your professional life?
I became a mum at a young age while I was still finding this perfect mix of passion and education and finding a way to make a living doing it all. So my children have always played a prominent role in all I do. I work along side them. They are a feature of my daily work life and often times I have created whole programs because I have seen how well my children responded to something. For example, I wrote a theatre kids program because I used to play those kind of games with my own kids and see how imaginative and creative they were. My children have been my teachers in how to teach others. I have such a variety of challenges with my own kids, so I have full compassion for the child who is more reserved or the child who is just jumping out of his skin saying, “Pick me, pick me!”.
How do you balance work and mama life?
I always try to be home for dinner. I take them with me, I give them my attention and they are a part of my work life and they come along for open days and show days. The older boys are needing more focused attention now as they navigate becoming teenagers and honestly, it’s a super fun challenge for me.
What are some of your organisational tips and tricks?
Organisation is something of a challenge with 4 children, three dance studios and a preschool! Let’s just say my children learn super fast to sink or swim! If they want to make that playdate, birthday party, basketball game after a certain age, I refuse to be their external hard drive. I tell them I will take them to it, but we are a team, I need them to be involved in making it happen. If they don’t remember, it’s on them. Life skills 101.
What do you do to get in that “me” time?
Huh? Oh you mean that one 10 day trip to Bali where I didn’t take my helper (because I totally got this, right?!) and all four of my kids got the flu… that me time? Honestly, with the kids being sick, I got to read a lot of books! I love reading and almost forgot how much!
What do you find to be the most challenging part of parenting?
If I never have to do another meal time with a three year old, I will die a happy lady.
What is the most rewarding part of parenting?
Seeing them grow up and become young adults, empathetic, funny and completely whole people aside from me. It’s the weirdest feeling looking at your newborn and thinking there is a whole person inside there. I can’t wait to meet each one, over and over again, each and every day.
What are 3 things you find yourself repeating to your kids all the time?
Get your shoes on! That can go for hours, just that one! The number of times I am driving out the driveway with a kid chasing me with his shoes still in his freaking hands is ridiculous. Another common phrase is “use your words!” because I have a three year old boy. And finally, “Get off your phones!” for the older ones.
Name your funniest and/or most memorable parenting moment.
Honestly, by the time you get to four kids there are so many. My youngest makes us all laugh everyday. For most memorable moments, I will never forget the feeling walking out of the house to go to work and having Caleb shouting out the window from the age of 4, “I will never stop loving you, mum!” for the whole village to hear. Also, seeing Elijah and Caleb both winning awards at school makes my heart burst with pride. For funny moments, Christmas has been the child most prone to saying inappropriate words at the top of her lungs. She started learning the word “penis” at 3 years old and yelling it out, so I decided to take the scientific approach and use it as a teaching moment. So I said, “Yes Chrissy, well done! Boys have penises and what do girls have?”. Without even skipping a beat, in her proudest most confident voice she said, “My Little Ponies”. We cracked up laughing and I had to try to teach her the word “vagina” which believe it or not is not as much fun to shout out in the supermarket as “penis” apparently!
What’s the best advice you’ve received as a parent?
The best advice I received was that they won’t starve to death. Oh believe me, they have all attempted it. But they all had such fat little Buddha bellies, no one would believe me when I told them they didn’t eat. In fact, they lived off air and the smug satisfaction of watching mummy lose her mind trying to cook for them!
Boys will be boys. Let it go. After a 4-year-old boy grabbed my 3-month-old baby’s hand and bit down hard on it. Needless to say, I did not let it go. And I teach my boys that every action they take must follow the golden rule. Would they like it to be done to them?
Something you wish someone had told you about motherhood?
That nothing hurts quite as much as seeing your child hurting and not being able to fix it.
What has been your most humbling moment as a mum?
I was a single mum of four beautiful kids for a period of years. The total fear and sheer panic of seeing the bank account go to zero, the struggle of managing to keep smiling, hugging, and kissing away their tears. Following that I would then be on my own knees at night praying I could get the strength to get up and do it all again the next day. I truly felt alone. Having to ask for help because there was nothing else I could do until I made the business work well enough to provide for me and kids. That was very humbling. I am so incredibly grateful for all those who supported me and kept me going through those years. The perseverance and grit through very trying circumstances has paid off. This year has brought some truly wonderful developments in both my personal life, with my partner and I getting engaged and with my business really finally breaking through.
As a mama, I wish I were better at…
Switching off and going to sleep early. I think that would probably make me a super mum!
Bedtime is always smoother when…
I am feeling happy and determined. Happy to read them a story with voices and faces, determined to say lights out and hold my own against the forces of evil that come out in my children at bedtime. Quite possibly the biggest mood swings ever recorded by mankind can be recorded in that hour when bedtime is supposed to happen!
My favourite moment of the day is…
When I walk in the door and I am greeted by screams of absolute adoration. Britney Spears and all those silly pop stars can keep their hordes of screaming fans, I have the best little fan club ever and they are the only ones that matter to me.
Thanks to the talented Jenna Louise Potter from Lucky Fish Photography for all of the beautiful images above! Follow her on Facebook.
Styling by the lovely Tessa Matthews from Tessa Matthews. Follow her on Instagram.