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Posts Tagged ‘Culture’

Johannesburg to Oakland

At California’s Laney College, Thamsanqa Hlatywayo shares lessons of dance and storytelling he learned while following an artistic path from Johannesburg to Broadway to the Bay Area. Photo by Tommy Nguyen

At California’s Laney College, Thamsanqa Hlatywayo shares lessons of dance and storytelling he learned while following an artistic path from Johannesburg to Broadway to the Bay Area. Photo by Tommy Nguyen

How South African dance landed at Laney College
By Toba Singer

How does a Johannesburg-born auto-assembly-line worker end up directing a dance production that aspires to meet the standards of a Broadway show? Ask Thamsanqa Hlatywayo, who has been teaching South African dance for the past two years at Laney College in Oakland, California. A volunteer, Hlatywayo formed Jikelele Dance Theater as a student-based company, much in the way that the well-known Bay Area dance company ODC emerged from the cocoon of the Oberlin College dance department in the early 1970s.

Johannesburg to Transkei and back

At 10, Hlatywayo moved from cosmopolitan Johannesburg to the rural Eastern Cape province of South Africa’s Transkei region. Other kids there had no shoes; since he didn’t want to stand out as a city kid, Hlatywayo didn’t wear his. “You’d walk five miles to find the nearest store, and turn around and walk back the same day,” he says. Along with adapting to life with cows, goats, sheep, and chickens, the city kid learned lessons from countryside performers that would change his life.

Unlike the popular songs Hlatywayo and his city friends sang in the early 1960s, those he learned in the village were chant-like, with distinctive, complicated rhythms that Hlatywayo found intriguing, part of a culture that was unfamiliar but irresistible. “If you didn’t learn stick fighting, other boys would come after you.” And yet, says Hlatywayo, “Culture, though different, thrived: people danced and sang as part of everyday life, not separate from other activities as in the city. My interest in dance theater took root there, and when I returned to the city, it deepened.”

Hlatywayo’s students’ enthusiasm and burgeoning skills inspired him to form Jikelele Dance Theater as a vehicle for creating Life in a South African Shanty Town.

Hlatywayo moved back to Johannesburg in 1967 and gravitated to a migrant worker hostel where residents did traditional dances. On Sundays, he joined traditional group dances at a center whose day-laborer performers sang and danced in the streets; he learned the dances by imitating their steps. “In Soweto, there are many ethnic groups, so I learned Xhosa, Zulu, Sotho, Isizulu, and Shangaan songs and dances.”

Township theater
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The Life in a South African Shanty Town script was created through improvisational sessions with cast members (left to right, top) Princess Fields, Tommy Nguyen, Matthew Wickett, (center) Christina Thompson, Ammar Lee-Fowler, Jene Levine-Snipes, (bottom) Anya McClenton, and Tiffany Rabb.
Photo by Solomon Wortz

In the late ‘60s, Hlatywayo studied with Gibson Kente, considered the father of township theater, an art form distinctive for its premise that you “make do with whatever is available where scarcity, not abundance, is the rule,” says Hlatywayo.

Unlike in the United States, where classification tends to be more peevish, township theater was the overall focus, and dance represented a spoke in that performance umbrella. The starting point is the telling of stories in the oral tradition, with township theater bearing responsibility for bringing to life the social and political issues that township dwellers face. Performances occurred on a regular basis, but because township theater activities had to remain somewhat underground, the shows were publicized mostly through word of mouth.

“What couldn’t be said in print or publicly could be expressed with the body,” Hlatywayo says, smiling. “By the time the bwanas [bosses] realized what we were doing, communication was already complete. Whites were absorbed in their own world, unaware of anything outside of it.”

To gain admittance to the political and cultural community hall, Hlatywayo set up the chairs. “I was an outsider. The others approached me with a ‘What do you think you’re doing here?’ attitude,” he says. “We were all political, and [those who participated in township theater] were a cultural grouping within the overall effort to end apartheid and win civil and human rights. It was the late 1960s, during a leadership vacuum after Mandela’s incarceration at Robben Island, but before the big demonstrations that eventually ended apartheid.”

In most cultures, it is hard to convince men to participate in dance performances or training. Here, the problem was the opposite: finding girls and women to dance, because, according to Hlatywayo, their socialization discouraged them from showing off. So while Hlatywayo faced no cultural prejudice against men dancing, he had to find a way into a group that was rather insular. A man in the group (with whom he bonded because they shared the same last name) finessed his acceptance by the others.

Although he never performed with Kente’s group, training with him afforded Hlatywayo the opportunity to benefit from the breadth of experience Kente and his troupe gained on tours to Swaziland and other locales throughout southern Africa.

Landing in the SF Bay Area

Hlatywayo arrived in the U.S. in 1980 as a performer with the musical Ipi-Tombi, a 1974 show that toured Africa, Europe, and North America; it was nominated for a Laurence Olivier Award for best musical in 1976. When the tour folded, friends advised the dancers to go to San Francisco. “We heard that there was a lot of political activity here,” Hlatywayo says. “Some were looking for political asylum because our activities in South Africa made it unwise to return.”

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Laney students worked hard to master South African dance technique, which spurred the creation of Jikelele Dance Theater.
Photo by Tommy Nguyen

Hlatywayo was one of seven cast members who came to the Bay Area in 1983 and formed Uzulu Dance Theater. He became its director. “We toured California; Beaumont and Corpus Christi, Texas; Washington State, and Canada, dancing at colleges and festivals. Eventually, I joined the Broadway show Sarafina! which was nominated for five Tony awards. When the Broadway show shut down, we went on tour with it,” Hlatywayo says, and Uzulu Dance Theater disbanded.

Young South African actors joined the cast. Hlatywayo was buoyed by their energy as they acclimated themselves to U.S. theater culture. He made a similar adaptation to the new demands and challenges of working in musical theater. Returning to Oakland after the tour, Hlatywayo says, “I took classes to learn other styles—jazz with Leon Jackson, and at Everybody’s Creative Art Center with Halifu Osumare, and Malonga Casquelourd.”

When the Sarafina! tour ended, Hlatywayo had time to expand his range of dance styles. He was also unemployed. “I heard they were hiring at NUMMI [an auto plant in nearby Hayward, California], and ended up working there,” he says. “Since I had been pretty much shut down in show business, I went for the money. It was good, but I was hungry for the music.” He says that if NUMMI hadn’t closed he’d probably still be working there. But he says his coworkers teased him, “Go dance! This is not the place for you!”

A return to dance and theater

In the mid-’90s, Hlatywayo began teaching in East Bay schools with Andrea Vonny Lee, who now co-chairs Oakland’s Laney College Dance Department with Jacqueline Burgess. He also taught in Dimensions Dance Theater’s Rites of Passage program, at the HAWK Federation (a development and training program for young black men), and at San Francisco State University.

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Struck by the students’ willingness to learn, enthusiasm, and burgeoning skills, Hlatywayo was moved to produce Life in a South African Shanty Town.
Photo by Tommy Nguyen

During the 2011–12 academic year, Hlatywayo became the Laney dance department’s township theater guest artist. He was struck by the students’ willingness to learn. Their enthusiasm and burgeoning skills sparked the notion that Hlatywayo might produce a show. “They inspired me to form Jikelele Dance Theater as a vehicle for doing Life in a South African Shanty Town,” he says. Funded by the Laney College Dance Department, work on the production began in January 2012.

Hlatywayo directed the production and Lee served as assistant director. The students “worked hard all day,” Hlatywayo says, “to rehearse technique, even if it was nothing except crossing the floor.” Technique could include shoulder, head, and arm isolations or more traditional dancing, in which the feet are wide apart, the knees bent, and the torso is low to the floor. In a class Hlatywayo and Lee offer on Sundays, students follow a modern-dance floor warm-up that builds to more complex standing combinations.

Scrupulous production values issue from professional habits Hlatywayo acquired under Kente’s tutelage, as well as his experience working with writer, composer, choreographer, and director Mbongeni Ngema and assistant choreographer Ndaba Mhlongo on Sarafina! Hlatywayo designed the company’s costumes, ensuring authenticity.

Hlatywayo was impressed with the dancers’ ensemble work. “The performance quality is teamwork. I saw their singing and dancing talent; I brought something to and out of students who would say, ‘I can dance but cannot sing.’ ‘If you can walk you can dance; if you can talk you can sing’—this is a Zimbabwean saying,” he says. “I would hear New York actors say, ‘I have to learn to sing and dance because auditions require everything,’ or ‘I cannot act.’ I’d say, ‘The world is a stage. Just be yourself and tell a story. Make the audience believe you.’ ”

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Life in a South African Shanty Town’s multi-talented student cast included the charismatic Matthew Wickett as Preacher.
Photo Christopher McKessy

The students’ enthusiasm pushed Hlatywayo to develop a script. “Gibson Kente never had a script. When Jikelele started we had no script,” he says. “We did improvisations where, for example, I would say, ‘I’ll give you the situation: somebody’s stealing from you. Say something!’ The students improvised in this way, scene by scene, and we came away with half a page of lines at a time as Andrea [Lee] took notes. I told them, ‘I am just the vehicle; you are the ones doing this. This is our show.’ ”

Some students dropped out of the show due to family obligations, while others were unable to participate in late night rehearsals due to the lack of public transportation. But senior Anya McLenton stayed, and ended up with the lead role of Dudu, an earnest student. A consummate “triple threat” performer, McLenton was a perfect canvas for Hlatywayo’s concept and process.

McLenton had studied at Dimensions Dance Theater’s Rites of Passage youth training program and danced in its performance ensemble. She also trained at Sylvia Townsend’s Art of Ballet School of Dance and performed at Great America and Disneyland. She says Townsend, and Latanya D. Tigner at Dimensions Dance Theater, taught her discipline. “Always wear black to class, no earrings, no talking, and drop everything at the door,” she says.

With a strong sense of studio etiquette and discipline, McLenton focused on creating her character, and using the steps and music to convey Dudu’s shifting moods. A natural choice for dance captain, she set an example for others in the troupe. Working with Hlatywayo made her learn to think of herself as a dancer “first and foremost,” she says. “He opened up my point of view and idea of myself, and for the first time made me think about Broadway and film,” she says.

Life in a South African Shanty Town took its inspiration from what Hlatywayo views as a desperate need to advance education among youth in the South African townships. Pursuing higher education is also a theme Hlatywayo has emphasized in raising his own children. Seeing McLenton graduate from Laney and pursue a masters degree at the University of Hawaii, Hlatywayo says, is proof that the vision that inspired the show is at work in the real world.




Oklahoma Indian Culture and Classical Ballet Combine in Wahzhazhe

Wahzhazhe; image courtesy Museum of the American Indian

Wahzhazhe; image courtesy Museum of the American Indian

A ballet depicting the history and culture of the Osage people, Wahzhazhe, will be performed March 20 to 23 at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC, according to Indian Country Today. Free performances will be held daily at 3pm in the Rasmuson Theater, 1st level.

Wahzhazhe is a contemporary ballet that brings together Oklahoma history and culture; a reverence for classical ballet that was the legacy of two famous Osage ballerinas, Maria and Marjorie Tallchief; and the richness of Osage traditional music, dance, and textile arts. The set designs are accurate depictions of Osage lifestyles, and the costumes are based on traditional tribal clothing worn over the course of the past 200 years.

The ballet depicts the removal of the Osage people from their homelands, the boarding-school era, the discovery of oil on their reservation leading to both great wealth and tragedy, and the celebration of Osage life today.

Wahzhazhe is produced by Randy Tinker Smith and choreographed by Jenna Smith, both of Osage descent. For further details, visit To see the original story, visit


Two Halves, One Whole

Left: Half and Halves, an artistic collaboration between Duniya Dance and Drum Company and Ensambles Ballet Folklorico de San Francisco, was inspired by the blending of two cultures.  Photo by Paul K. Benjamin  Right: In the finale, the endurance of the Mexican-Punjabi community is celebrated in costumes inspired by lehengas, a traditional Punjabi skirt, paired with Mexican blouses. Photo by Vijay Rakhra

Left: Half and Halves, an artistic collaboration between Duniya Dance and Drum Company and Ensambles Ballet Folklorico de San Francisco, was inspired by the blending of two cultures. Photo by Paul K. Benjamin Right: In the finale, the endurance of the Mexican-Punjabi community is celebrated in costumes inspired by lehengas, a traditional Punjabi skirt, paired with Mexican blouses. Photo by Vijay Rakhra

Mexico and India meet onstage in a blend of dance and culture
By Arisa White

Dancers tell stories with movement. And the story that Half and Halves: A Dance Exploration of the Punjabi-Mexican Communities of California tells is no small tale: it tackles immigration, agriculture, xenophobia, ambition, and the necessity of love.

Half and Halves was conceived and developed over the course of two years by artistic directors Joti Singh of Duniya Dance and Drum Company and Zenon Barron of Ensambles Ballet Folklórico de San Francisco. Choreographer and performer Singh was introduced to this particular history by a dancer in her company who is half Indian and Mexican, although this dancer was raised in Mexico and not the Imperial Valley, where many of the Punjabi-Mexican communities were established. “We both realized that it would be a great subject for a performance, and something really interesting to explore,” says Singh.

The daughter of immigrants from Punjab, Singh grew up in the South. “I always have felt like I was straddling two cultures. Part of what struck me about this story was the ways in which the Punjabi-Mexican couples adopted certain elements of each culture,” says Singh. “I could really relate to that, and it made me think a lot about choices my parents had made. Even though the Punjabi-Mexican communities were mostly in the late 19th and early half of the 20th centuries, while my parents were raising us in the late ’70s through ’90s, the issues of discrimination, cultural compatibility, and how to raise the next generation were really the same.”

A bhangra dancer since her youth, Singh mined her dance network to find possible collaborators, and someone recommended Barron. Barron, who had been spending summers in Mexico learning traditional dances from one of his mentors, was intrigued.

Both Singh and Barron work in traditional dance forms but innovate within them, adding their contemporary sensibilities to make the forms relevant to audiences who may not be familiar with those cultures. Trained in classical ballet, Barron infuses his folklórico choreography—already characterized by upright posture and intricate footwork—with ballet technique and sensibility. Singh animates and invigorates the traditional form of bhangra—a community folk dance often performed after the days of harvest in Punjab, which incorporates movements such as shoulder shrugs, hopping, and jumping—with her decade-plus study of West African dance.

I always have felt like I was straddling two cultures. Part of what struck me about this story was the ways in which the Punjabi-Mexican couples adopted certain elements of each culture. —Joti Singh

The project began in 2009, under the auspices of CHIME, a choreographic mentorship exchange between emerging and established choreographers, produced by Margaret Jenkins Dance Company in San Francisco. As Barron mentored Singh, the two artists began to see overlap in their dance forms and experimented with ways in which the forms could complement and combine one with another. “Exploring our traditions, we saw that we had the same [kind of] dances, same ceremonies,” says Barron.

Maria Anaya, who has danced with Ensambles for four years, says, “Folklórico tends to be more influenced by ballet, which is more upright and rigid.” The most difficult part about learning bhangra, she says, was “letting go and being looser.”

Another four-year member of Ensambles, Lupe Aguilera, found bhangra intimidating at first. “After tens of years dancing in one style, your body doesn’t quite know how to move like that,” she says. “However, Joti and her dancers were welcoming and helped us understand the intricate foot and hand movements in their pieces. It has been fun getting to know the other dancers and feeling the beat from a different style of music.”


Photo by Vijay Rakhra

In conducting interviews with members of the Punjabi-Mexican community, Singh and Barron discovered that food and death practices were central to this melded society. The men and women interviewed also “talked a lot about farming, about how they mixed traditions, about discrimination,” says Singh.

Half and Halves was structured around those themes and around the importance of food and death in the Punjabi-Mexican culture. One dance, a quiet, meditative work for five Ensamble women, celebrates the Mexican Day of the Dead holiday.

“We decided to introduce each section with a video clip of these interviews to give it some context. Then we each choreographed a dance for the section,” Singh says. With additional support from the Creative Work Fund (which invites collaborations between artists and nonprofit organizations to create new art works), Half and Halves premiered in November 2010 at San Francisco’s Brava Theater.

A little known history

The history of the California Punjabi-Mexican community in Imperial Valley takes center stage in Half and Halves. Due to economic hardship in Punjab in the 1900s, farming families sent their sons abroad to earn money, and many of these young men ended up in California.

“Nobody came to this valley because they were rich,” says Karmen Chell in a video clip, recalling the realities her father faced when he settled in Imperial Valley in 1913. “They came here because the land was cheap.”

Punjabi men were enterprising and ambitious. Fed up with poor working conditions and low wages, they pooled their resources, leased farmland, and began to grow their own crops. Enduring temperatures in the hundreds and living in tents or shacks without electricity or piped-in water, the immigrants found that life wasn’t easy. Still, there was one comforting familiarity: the landscape looked very much like Punjab.

At around the same time, the turmoil of the Mexican Revolution led many Mexican families to flee to the United States. Their daughters worked the land alongside the Punjabi men, who, because of immigration restrictions, had not been allowed to bring their families with them. The Mexican women and Punjabi farmers found they had much in common, including social values, attitudes toward money and wealth, and a rural way of life.

The groups intermarried, even though anti-miscegenation laws occasionally created obstacles. In some cases, fair-skinned Mexicans were perceived as white and dark-skinned Punjabis were perceived as black and therefore were not allowed to marry in some states, including California. They had to hire lawyers who could validate that they were of the same race (then defined largely by skin color) and then issue a marriage license, or they traveled miles to Las Vegas to wed. Punjabi men learned Spanish, Mexican women learned to make roti and curries, and their children referred to themselves as “half and half.”

Racial hostility and violence were common, yet the small Punjabi-Mexican community “stuck together,” says Robert Chell, Karmen Chell’s brother. “People really helped each other. I think that’s why a lot of them were able to survive.”

Putting it all together

In developing Half and Halves, Singh and Barron worked in their respective genres when choreographing pieces for their own company dancers. For the group pieces that brought the two companies together, they conducted joint rehearsals. “I went to Ensambles’ rehearsals once a week for about a month and a half to teach them a bhangra piece,” Singh says, “and Zenon did the same with Duniya.” The two companies rehearsed together, at first weekly, and then with increasing intensity as the performance date approached.


Duniya and Ensambles company members wear costumes that reflect Mexican indigenous cultures and traditions. Photo by Vijay Rakhra

Half and Halves’ 12 pieces, all of which incorporate singers and musicians, take audiences on a heartfelt journey—from loss of homeland and family, to the experience of being bullied, to the death of passing generations. But there’s joy too—the celebration of the harvest, marriage, and the newly constituted communities those marriages helped to forge. The finale, choreographed by Singh, conveys the strength and endurance of this blended community.

Costumes reflect the blending of the two cultures and their traditions. The Punjabi kameez, or shirt, is accented with ribbons to match the colorful designs on a Mexican folklórico skirt; Mexican blouses are paired with skirts whose design was inspired by the traditional Punjabi skirt called a lehenga. Other costumes illustrate the daily tenor of farm community life and are based on clothing worn by California farmers in the early part of the 20th century, school uniforms of the era, and traditional clothing worn in indigenous communities throughout Mexico.

Working together, Singh and Barron made this small, idiosyncratic community—one that survived, and by most measures, thrived for a generation before its children became more fully assimilated—come alive through original choreography and music. Eventually, they hope, Half and Halves will bring to a broader audience the extraordinary story of how two immigrant groups from opposite sides of the globe formed a vibrant new culture in a new land. “Most of us did not even know this piece of history,” says Anaya. “Part of [the purpose of] this work was to make it known.”

In the meantime, the process of creating the show exposed the members of both companies to dancers from very different backgrounds and heritages. “Many of us have remained in contact and support each other’s dance groups,” Anaya says. “[It’s] a testament to the power of dance and storytelling to bring people together.”

Rhee Gold Seminars


Teacher to Teacher | An Inspirational Adventure

By Carol Crawford Smith

Being a dance teacher requires almost constant creative thought, from teaching dance classes to dreaming up shows and performance opportunities for students. Where does all this creativity come from? Last summer I took a trip to New York City—an arts-and-culture mecca—to see if that would revive my spirit and jumpstart my creative juices.

My first stop was the Palace Theatre to see West Side Story. From the film, I recall Rita Moreno dancing exquisitely in a purple dress in “America,” but when I saw the musical onstage I could really absorb the intricate patterns and poses of Jerome Robbins’ choreography. I was certainly inspired by Robbins’ ability to tell a meaningful story in a dramatic musical—inspiration I intended to take back to my studio.

Before my trip, I had been questioning what to do with this year’s annual dance production. Now I know. I will turn a favorite bedtime story into a ballet and feature each of my children’s divisions. In years past, parents have responded well to the creative concept of telling a story through dance, and my dancers were always eager to learn which characters they would portray. In one show, Dancing in Oz, my youngest tap class danced “Hail and Thunder” before the tornado lifts Dorothy from her Kansas cornfield. It was fun but also a real creative challenge to choose costumes, find music, and choreograph based on a story line.

The next day, I found more inspiration in a ballet class at Joe Lanteri’s New York City Dance Alliance summer intensive. The teacher was my dear friend Katie Langan, chair of the dance department at our alma mater, Marymount Manhattan College. In the early ’90s, after successful dance careers—hers included dancing with Twyla Tharp—Katie and I were both committed to achieving undergraduate degrees. From the moment we met at Marymount, we supported each other as we navigated through a new terrain of textbooks, term papers, and final exams.

Though Katie and I danced with different companies, we share many of the same philosophies and approaches to teaching. In the NYCDA class she used a positive approach as she challenged students to remember the flow and placement of port de bras at the barre and then keep it up as they moved to center. One of my instructors was in the class, and I am certain she will take the best from Katie’s lesson and pass it on to the students at my school.

I was inspired by Robbins’ ability to tell a meaningful story in a dramatic musical—inspiration I intended to take back to my studio.

A day later, I was off to my ol’ stompin’ grounds—Dance Theatre of Harlem—where I visited with former colleagues who now serve in administrative positions. We laughed and reminisced but also shared our excitement over plans for the DTH Ensemble to visit my community in the spring. My students will see firsthand an entity of the arts organization that molded me as a dancer, and I hope the experience will inspire them to excel in class and performances. It might also motivate others to return to dance or to begin studying for the first time.

 My Big Apple excursion included a visit to The Ailey School, where I could sense a “desire to be the best” in the air. The facility, with 12 studios, an in-house theater, and physical therapy and exercise rooms, is a dance studio owner’s dream. I felt like I was in a Degas painting as “baby ballerinas” greeted each other and checked each other’s pink tights and tightly wrapped buns. The school’s co-director greeted students and parents in the halls, reinforcing my belief that a studio owner needs to know her customers individually. Parents and students should be recognized and appreciated, and all members of a studio family should be comfortable enough to communicate with each other about expectations and needs.

As my “inspirational adventure” came to a close, I attended outdoor performances of Wideman/Davis Dance and Complexions Contemporary Ballet as part of the Summer Stage program held at East River Park. It was time to sit back, relax, and enjoy other dance companies. There was absolutely nothing to critique or fix, and no need to take notes or fuss with costume changes. It was pure rejuvenation. All I had to do was exhale.

I encourage all teachers to take a similar trip. You’ll be glad you did, and your students will thrive in the refreshed energy you bring back to their lessons.


Higher-Ed Voice | Dance Diplomats


Fulbright scholars build bridges across cultures

By Bonner Odell

What dancer doesn’t dream of traveling the world, pursuing a dance dream to exotic parts of the globe? Such experiences aren’t reserved only for those lucky few who dance professionally for international touring companies. In reality, a whole world (no pun intended) of opportunities exists to pursue a love of dance abroad through cross-cultural dance research.

Australian Aboriginal and Native American dancers take part in Gretchen Ward Warren’s 2001 production, Dancing With the Wheel of Ever Returning, at the University of South Florida. (Photo courtesy Gretchen Ward Warren)

As dance gains broader international recognition as an academic discipline, so does the understanding that research in dance can involve the body as well as the mind. As Ron Jenkins, professor of theater at Wesleyan University, puts it, “The experience of learning about another culture by putting your body through the movements of its dances can give you insights that are impossible to understand in any other way.” As this idea spreads, so do opportunities to study and teach dance cross-culturally through academic grants and fellowships.

Among the most reputable and established programs that embrace international dance research is the Fulbright Program. Administered by the U.S. State Department and funded by Congress, the 64-year-old program sends inquiring minds of all stripes, in all disciplines, to study abroad for two weeks to a year. (Approximately 2,750 grants are awarded per year.) Recipients of the award conduct research projects of their own devising, in the country of their choice. The program also brings students and scholars from abroad to study in the United States. The goal, according to the Fulbright mission statement, is to “increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other cultures.” Much like an academic version of the Peace Corps, the program draws participants from a startling range of backgrounds, ages, and professions.

Have idea, will travel
Fulbright recipients—who can include undergraduate and graduate students, college professors, artists, professionals, and teachers—are chosen based on their “academic merit and leadership potential,” which can be broadly interpreted according to one’s field.

“Studio owners can get Fulbrights,” asserts Alison Friedman, who traveled to China to study the development of modern dance there. “If you need a sabbatical, go study somewhere for six to nine months. Your students will benefit as much as you will.” A Chinese literature major with a passion for dance, Friedman applied for a Fulbright as a senior at Brown University in Rhode Island. “Receiving the fellowship blew open the possibilities for me. Finally I could combine the two halves of my life—my interest in Chinese culture and my love of dance.”

At the other end of the spectrum, the Fulbright Program funds artists and scholars who have been studying a particular dance culture for years. Ron Jenkins traveled to Bali, Indonesia, on a Fulbright fellowship in 2007, more than 30 years after he first visited the country as a new college graduate. Now fluent in Balinese, he used the Fulbright opportunity to delve deeper into his study of the way sacred Balinese dance functions in secular culture.

Jenkins’ project studied a landmark 2007 court case in which a Balinese painter alleged that several paintings of Balinese dancers, attributed to him, had been counterfeited. The painter claimed he would never have depicted the inauthentic poses his imposter chose. In order to prove his point, the painter danced for the judge. Because sacred Balinese dance is widely practiced and revered throughout the country, his dancing was recognized as legitimate and the paintings as fakes.

“I’m interested in places where dance and theater are deeply integrated into the fabric of the culture,” says Jenkins. “In Bali, all children take dance lessons and all citizens go to see performances at village temple ceremonies. It’s essential to who they are as a people.” Over the years, Indonesian culture has become equally essential to who Jenkins is. He collaborates frequently with Indonesian performers in creating his own artistic work, has translated numerous Balinese plays into English, and helped bring Indonesian dance into the dance curriculum at Wesleyan.

Prize-winning project topics
Applicants must develop a viable project proposal. Many dance practitioners have long-standing fascinations with a particular dance culture; the key is to craft that interest into a proposal that addresses the Fulbright Program’s priorities. High on the list, according to the program website, is “finding solutions to shared international concerns.”

Gretchen Ward Warren credits her 2002 award in part to the selection of a pressing topic with worldwide implications: the rapidly disappearing dance culture of Australia’s Aborigines. A ballet specialist and professor at the University of South Florida (USF), Warren first became entranced by Aboriginal dance while watching Netherlands Dance Theatre perform director Jiří Kylián’s famous ballet Stamping Ground, which he made after attending a summit of Aboriginal elders aimed at preserving the dance traditions of the 50,000-year-old culture. Says Warren of the piece, “I was blown away. I felt driven to learn more about Aboriginal dance, which was clearly central to the lives of these people.” So she wrote a Fulbright proposal to study the tribal form in Australia.

“The experience of learning about another culture by putting your body through the movements of its dances can give you insights that are impossible to understand in any other way.” —dance scholar Ron Jenkins

Warren’s experience abroad changed her both personally and professionally. “[It] completely altered the way I look at my own country,” she says. “I never would have become as intensely aware of the native people in the United States, and the history of genocide inflicted upon them, if I hadn’t seen the same situation abroad.” Once home, Warren began reading about and interviewing Native Americans from various tribes. This new phase of her research inspired her to create a performance project she called Dancing With the Wheel of Ever Returning. Staged at USF, the collaboration featured Aboriginal dancers flown in from Australia, Native American dancers and drummers, American modern dancers, and USF faculty and students.

The performance was a testament to Warren’s community of a phenomenon she had witnessed in Australia: “Through dance,” she writes in her post-project narrative, “a powerful statement of unity was being made, about the glorious possibilities when peoples of different cultures get together to celebrate their humanity through movement.”

Teaching across the continents
In addition to funding research, the Fulbright Program provides teachers with opportunities to teach abroad. Sherry Shapiro, a professor of dance and women’s studies at Meredith College in North Carolina, spent five months in Cape Town, South Africa, on a Fulbright scholarship in 2009, teaching modern dance in public schools.

Cape Town was introducing a dance program in schools throughout the city and wider Western Cape with an eye to promoting social justice, inclusiveness, democracy, and the country’s post-apartheid national identity. To study how dance educators were implementing the program, Shapiro observed classes and guest taught in three very different high schools. These included a mostly white, upper-class school (where modern dance predominated); a middle-class “Cape Coloured” (or mixed-race) school; and a mostly black school in a poverty-ridden township (where African dance took center stage).

The culminating experience of Shapiro’s research was a project she devised for a group of young women of different races that explored what it means to be female in South Africa. “We used the topic of hair as the social signifier,” she explains. “I had the girls journal about their hair—how they felt about it; how it plays into perceptions of their race; how it affects the jobs they can get, the people they befriend, the boys they date.” Shapiro then had the girls pick out words and images from their writing and use them to craft movement.

After three months of working with the material, the girls presented a performance for the community called hair southAfrica. “It was a very powerful experience for them,” says Shapiro. “It was the first time in their dance lives that they hadn’t been told what to do, but actually developed choreography from a personal place. I’m hoping to go back in two years to find out what happened to them, especially to the township girls, whose futures are so precarious.”

Short-term projects, long-term impact
While Fulbright experiences last less than a year, their impact on recipients is often lifelong. For Alison Friedman, her year in China turned into six. After she completed her Fulbright project, her bilingual abilities helped her secure a position as international director for Beijing Modern Dance Company, one of the country’s premier dance groups. Her job entailed coordinating the group’s tours abroad.

“I went all over the world with the company,” she says. “It was a dream job. I could travel to new places with some of my best friends [the dancers], and everything was paid for.” Friedman then went on to serve as an arts consultant for the U.S. Embassy in China and conduct research for the Asian Cultural Council and Royal Netherlands Embassy. She has helped produce dance festivals in both the United States and China, including the Kennedy Center Festival of China in Washington, DC, in 2005.

Friedman credits this rich palette of experiences to that first venture as a curious college senior, and to the Fulbright Program, which recognized the potential in her vision. “While conducting my research, I realized I was only going to scratch the surface in 10 months,” she says. “I ended the project with far more questions than I answered. But the experience sparked a longer-term interest in the culture, as it does for so many Fulbrighters.”

Friedman believes the administrators of the Fulbright Program recognize this phenomenon as the ultimate contribution of the award. “They don’t expect you to change the world with a single project. But they do know the experience has the potential to alter the trajectory of your career. And that,” she says, “can change the world.”

For more information:

Other Resources for Dance Researchers
The Guggenheim Foundation: ~ 220 grants per year for mid-career artists; average award $43,200 for 6 to 12 months of study; deadline September 15;

Rotary International Ambassadorial Scholarship: ~ 600 grants per year; average award $26,000 for one academic year abroad; deadline March 1–August 15 (varies by local Rotary chapter);

Global Studies Grants to Support the Study of International Affairs: three grants per year; average award $1,000 as a study-abroad supplement; proposals due July 1;

Asian Cultural Council: ~ 100 grants per year for research in Asia; amount varies for 1 to 12 months of study abroad; check website for proposal info in June; deadline November 15;

National Endowment for the Arts: grants to individuals made for folk and traditional artists only; organizational grants for performance projects ($5,000–$150,000, due March 11 or August 12), projects serving underserved communities ($10,000, due May 27), and dance education for youth ($5,000–$150,000, due June 10);

Individual countries also offer fellowship programs and can be searched by country online at study-abroad clearinghouses such as


Culture of Positivity


Diversity, discipline, and devotion rule at Westlake School for the Performing Arts

By Sophia Emigh

Many dance schools that excel in one area falter in another. They might boast a strong pointe program, for example, while lacking challenging modern classes, or show off knockout competition choreography at the cost of supporting students’ positive growth in the classroom. Enter Malu Rivera-Peoples, however, and you’ve got another story. Her Westlake School for the Performing Arts (WSPA) in Daly City, California (just south of San Francisco), juggles a culture of dedicated training with success in competitions and a rich cultural program, getting results on a broad scale. What’s her secret? It all boils down to hard work and love.


Junior members of WSPA’s Polynesian troupe dance an ancient hula at the yearly Urban Paradise show in 2009. (Photo by Lem Abdon)

Junior members of WSPA’s Polynesian troupe dance an ancient hula at the yearly Urban Paradise show in 2009. (Photo by Lem Abdon)

From 0 to 1,000
Rivera-Peoples’ commitment to excellence traces back to her time dancing in the Philippines. She began studying ballet with Felicitas Radaic at age 10, joined Dance Theater Philippines at 16 and then Ballet Philippines in college, and started her own one-room studio school at 19. When the demands of touring life got to her at the peak of her performing career at 23, she left dance behind to join her father and sister in California.

A stint as a toy company’s secretary soon gave way to teaching ballet part-time and an urge to start a school whose teaching philosophy would live up to her own high standards. Though she lacked students, Rivera-Peoples brought her program and a load of confidence to Daly City’s Parks and Recreation Department, and in 1991 struck a deal to rent studios in what had been a grammar school and artist studios, a complex by then crowded by weeds and fences. Her vision for the future prevailed as she convinced the city to give her school a new home with mirrors, barres, and raised floors in the Doelger Art Center.

Paired with her teaching partner, Karen Dycaico, once her student in the Philippines and a “magical pied piper,” says Rivera-Peoples, with the kids, in three years the women grew the school from 35 students to 300. When the ballet students began winning the California State Talent Competition, families brought in sisters, cousins, and friends to take class. A simple ballet and tap program with Philippine dance in the summer intensive expanded when a teacher walked in the door and offered to start a character program; a musical theater program now headed by Katie Kerwin followed. With as many as 1,200 students at one point (the number has now settled at around 1,000), Rivera-Peoples called on her husband, Paul Peoples (now WSPA’s executive director), to handle the business end of WSPA’s massive growth, while she focused on choreography and working with beginning students.

Although Rivera-Peoples credits good fortune with bringing teachers and opportunities to her door, she’s quick to say that her success came from more than luck: “Maybe I’m blessed with that, but I work very hard. It’s been my life, always pushing, just being open to anything that comes by.”

An atmosphere of pride
As Rivera-Peoples gives a tour of the school, laughter from the courtyard spills over into Tahitian drumming, a Broadway jazz tune, and live piano accompanying pliés in the biggest studio. Parents approach her, and a tap teacher is eager to show off her students’ routine. An excitement about learning and growth is palpable here, as is familial support.

WSPA offers a general school for beginners and a performance program for those motivated to compete and perform more often; students can audition for the latter every June, and most are accepted unless they lack maturity or focus. Demonstrating her faith in students, Rivera-Peoples says, “Even if you don’t have technique, we’ll put you in a level where you can build your technique and go from there.”

Despite the rich array of classes (for example, 45 separate classes for students ages 3 to 6 alone), students tend to specialize in one discipline once they hit their teenage years. The commitment of Rivera-Peoples and her teachers to broadening the scope of the curriculum has brought an unusual level of respect to ballet, tap, jazz, Graham-based modern, Polynesian, musical theater, and hip-hop alike.

The performance programs, despite their demands, are strong enough to attract their own following; students take such pride in their chosen genre that they want to become part of the group. Each boasts its own official name: The Company (hip-hop), WSPA Dance Company (ballet, modern, and contemporary), Te Orama (Polynesian), and The Kinetic Dancers (jazz).

Rivera-Peoples credits the excellence of the classes and groups to the quality of the teaching: “It all depends on the teachers, the energy they put in. The pride that comes along with that is very, very important.”

An unusual pairing
WSPA is also known for its extensive Polynesian dance program, offering both traditional Hawaiian and Tahitian dance and chances to perform in annual competitions and festivals like Te Aranui O Tahiti, hosted at San Francisco State University and attended by dancers from all over California. Anthony Manaois, the program’s director, teaches his students routines inspired by summers he spent in Hawaii or memories passed down from his grandparents. In class, he’ll explain a dance’s origins and how its meaning weaves into the movement.

In addition to the large Filipino population in the area, Rivera-Peoples believes the accessibility of the dances’ stories has fueled the popularity of the Polynesian program. She respects the kids’ ability to chant in new languages while dancing and their stamina for the fast Tahitian movements: “Because they’re so young and like sponges, they learn.”

Te Orama splits an unusual bill in the yearly Urban Paradise show, alternating numbers with the hip-hop company, whose graceful approach reminds Rivera-Peoples of watching ballet. Headed by her son, Patrick Cruz, the primarily college-age hip-hop students are passionate, sometimes rehearsing until midnight after school and evening jobs. Rivera-Peoples commends them for their commitment. “Their pieces come from the heart. It’s their story.”

Caught up in derogatory associations of hip-hop, the kids still get profiled by local police. “What they don’t know is these guys are so straight,” says Rivera-Peoples. “They’re working and in school. They just love hip-hop dance.” Rivera-Peoples used Young Performers Inc. (WSPA’s separate nonprofit fund-raising and production organization) to start Urban Paradise, to raise money while showing her students in a positive light. “I didn’t want them to stop training just because they didn’t have the money and support of their parents,” she says.  

Te Orama’s share of the profits raised by Young Performers pays for lavish handmade traditional costumes, while The Company uses its proceeds for competition expenses. While WSPA doesn’t have an official scholarship program, Rivera-Peoples offers students a chance to volunteer at Young Performers in lieu of tuition, opening to everyone the possibility for exploration through dance.

“You can teach them anything.”
WSPA’s vast offerings are backed by a culture of rigorous training. Although Rivera-Peoples is in tears when she watches her hip-hop and Polynesian kids perform in Urban Paradise, she says it’s hard to please her. “When I see that the performance is not good, I go back to the teacher and say, ‘That was very disappointing. We’re going to have to redo the plan to make [the kids] prepared.’ ”

Rivera-Peoples’ eye for detail sprang from her background with the Royal Academy of Dance’s examinations. “From the pinky to the head—that’s how you’re examined. Since I went through that, that’s how I taught.” This level of expectation shows respect for the children’s abilities, capacity for learning, and potential for pride in their own accomplishments. Rivera-Peoples always tells teachers, “Do not underestimate these little kids, because you can teach them anything.”

One of the secrets of Rivera-Peoples’ success and of her school’s atmosphere of mutual respect is that her standards for her programs and teachers are as high as those for her dancers.

Eleven-year-old student Margaux Brosnan says that her teachers have inspired her to push through hard moments in dance and in her own life by sharing stories of their own perseverance. Such guidance gives many students a strong focus that makes the school’s high standards seem reachable.

Standards of excellence
WSPA teachers never sacrifice technique drills for rehearsal time even near performances, matching the school’s philosophy that performing without solid technique defeats the point. Rivera-Peoples believes that stage presence and successful performances stem from students knowing what they’re doing. She makes it clear that if the students are not serious in the beginning, they’ll suffer come recital time or competition when they see their work onstage. And she tells her teachers, “The performance of the kids is the gauge of how well you’ve done.”

That phrase, “how well you’ve done,” is worth noting. One of the secrets of Rivera-Peoples’ success and of her school’s atmosphere of mutual respect is that her standards for her programs and teachers are as high as those for her dancers. She takes pride in her teachers’ college educations and successes in her supportive yet demanding environment.

Nineteen-year-old hip-hop teacher Matthew Montenegro says that WSPA has been like a family to him since second grade, giving him confidence, discipline, creative challenges and critiques, and chances to share his talents with his own community and the world.

Twenty-six-year-old teacher Jessica Manalo is also eager to share her love of WSPA. A teacher since 1998, she is also the school’s webmaster and artistic coordinator for community outreach events. WSPA is far more than a workplace to her; she values the sense of community fostered at her “home away from home,” the freedom given to teachers, and the “true nurturing spirit and care for the children, teaching, and for the art,” she says.

Manalo has known Rivera-Peoples for 18 years; she was named as her protégé when Rivera-Peoples was honored as one of the Filipina Women’s Network’s 100 Most Influential Women in 2007. As the dance director at Holy Angels School in Colma, California, Manalo now uses Rivera-Peoples’ leadership as a model for her own success. (In turn, Rivera-Peoples credits her own ability to remain levelheaded and to see talent in all people to the strong business and artistic leadership of Alice Reyes, artistic director of Ballet Philippines.)

According to Manalo, Rivera-Peoples focuses neither on pleasing parents nor on creating “perfect” dancers. Rather, she “educates the whole person” in the window of time she has to make an impact on children’s lives, teaching them life skills through technique and discipline in the classroom.

While offering such support, Rivera-Peoples expects her teachers to take responsibility for the level of focus in their classroom. She tells them that the students “can do fabulous things for you, so push them. Nurture them. Every child is important.”

A month before recitals, she organizes mini-shows for classes to share their work and receive both positive feedback and constructive criticism. Her demands for accountability extend beyond teaching to her own directorship: She has pushed herself to develop strong programs so that she can offer students of every discipline a place to earn respect and to respect themselves.

Positive reinforcement
Beyond rigorous technique standards, Rivera-Peoples encourages unusually confident and nuanced stage presence in her students by “making them feel unique, beautiful, and special.” Every time one cracks a smile, she’ll say, “You’re gorgeous—keep that up!” She adds, “It’s basically constant reinforcement of how beautiful they are.”

“Cold faces,” she says, come up onstage only when kids are unsure of what they’re doing. If teachers have drilled them from the moment class starts, they can nip stage fright in the bud. Rivera-Peoples encourages both concentration and exploration in class: “I tell them, ‘You need to make all the mistakes now, but you need to zone from the minute you walk into the class. It’s work.’ The joy in that is being able to master that, and then you can have fun.”

Just before her students wow the crowds with their precision and passion onstage, Rivera-Peoples tells them, “You’re not going to make a mistake, because you’re very prepared. So just go out there and do it, and just have fun.”

A little girl named Jonalyn Monpero, who turned 8 years old during the Youth America Grand Prix, joins Rivera-Peoples in the school’s courtyard. Competition organizers said the girl wouldn’t be a good representation of WSPA since the minimum competition age was 9, but Rivera-Peoples said Jonalyn was ready and wanted to compete. With obvious pride, one arm around Jonalyn’s shoulders, Rivera-Peoples says, “And guess what? She took third!” The organizers apologized and Jonalyn was interviewed onstage about her favorite part of dancing. “And what did you say? Having fun.” The little girl nods.

Motivations of the heart
WSPA thrives because its demanding culture is rooted in motivations of the heart. Rivera-Peoples’ passion for teaching fires her up to come to work every day, and her students’ and teachers’ respect for her is borne out of her great respect for them.

As Rivera-Peoples always tells her students before a competition, “I don’t care about winning the trophy. What I care about is that you outdo yourself. I know what you’re capable of doing. If you do less than what you have done in the studio, then you’ve lost. But if you do better than what you’ve done in the studio, I don’t care if they don’t give you the trophy. To me, you’ve won, and you should celebrate that.”


Ballet Scene | Culture Shock


BalletSceneDancing Across Borders follows Sokvannara Sar’s incredible journey from Cambodia to the U.S.

By Heather Wisner

As a young folk dancer in his native Cambodia, Sokvannara Sar never dreamed of pursuing a professional ballet career; not long ago, in fact, he was unaware that ballet even existed. So how he got from his village to the corps of Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet—with an extended layover in New York City and a side trip to Varna—makes for a remarkable story. Anne Bass has captured it in her engaging documentary, Dancing Across Borders, which came out last summer.

A bold move
The story begins in 2000, when Bass, on a visit to Cambodia, saw Sar perform with a local folk dance troupe entertaining tourists at Angkor Wat. “His performance really struck me,” she says. “He was very musical, with perfect proportions, and full of joy, which is important for a dancer. He was very charismatic onstage. He just stood out.”

Sokvannara Sar demonstrates his elevation as he dances in Benjamin Millepied’s Etude No. 5 (Photo by Erin Baiano)

Sokvannara Sar demonstrates his elevation as he dances in Benjamin Millepied’s Etude No. 5 (Photo by Erin Baiano)

Sar, called Sy (pronounced “See”) for short, had started dance training in fifth grade, mostly for fun, but later as a way to supplement his family’s income. After his training, he moved on to the performance stage, then to the company. He enjoyed performing with his friends and making extra money for school—“a dollar or two, which would help us with books and pencils.”

Bass thought about Sar long after her trip was over; she believed he deserved greater access to dance training than he was getting. She mulled over the idea of bringing him to the United States to study at New York City’s School of American Ballet (SAB), where she had served as a board member for many years. “In a way, when I look back on this, it surprises me,” Bass says of her involvement. “It’s not something I might usually do; it was like I was being made to do it.”

Eventually, the invitation was extended to him through the World Monuments Fund, which helped sponsor his dance troupe. The WMF, which helped him obtain a visa, told Sar’s family that it could be a good opportunity for him and that he would be in good hands.

“I always heard a lot about America; I saw it on TV and thought it was pretty remarkable,” Sar says. “When someone told me to travel there, I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t think it was going to happen, but I said, ‘OK, I’ll go to America.’ It’s a big move, to go to the other side of the world.”

Culture shock
Sar and his chaperone arrived in New York in May 2000. He thought he had come just to look at SAB, but he wound up staying for the next few years, with Bass as his sponsor, making the school’s dorms and studios his new home.

The situation became complicated almost immediately, as everyone recalls.

“When someone told me to travel there, I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t think it was going to happen, but I said, ‘OK, I’ll go to America.’ It’s a big move, to go to the other side of the world.” —Sokvannara Sar

Bass had brought photos of the 16-year-old Sar to SAB’s offices, but hadn’t mentioned his age to Peter Boal, who was teaching men’s classes at SAB. Boal says he trusted Bass’ eye for dance, but after he and colleague Jock Soto gave Sar his first ballet audition, they were skeptical. The audition “wasn’t a disaster,” Boal says. “He was handsome and well proportioned and he had great elevation. But he was untrained, and we had the language problem. The level of a 16-year-old was just not there.”

Although Sar had dance experience and knew how to charm an audience and respond to music, Boal says, launching him into a professional ballet career was “a one-in-a-million shot.”

Enter Olga Kostritzky, a longtime SAB teacher who retired last summer. “When I first saw him, he was tiny, tiny, tiny. I thought he was 12,” she says. Rather than giving him a ballet audition, she asked him to perform Cambodian dance. “I lift his leg, I touch his foot, and because he is a dancer, he can follow. I tell Anne, ‘He has a good jump, good feet, a good plié. He is musical; he is elegant. I think in a previous life, he was a prince. He makes a statement. He has a presence.’ ”

A compromise was struck: Bass proposed that Sar study privately with Kostritzky over the summer, then see how he progressed.

“It was sort of like My Fair Lady—a good challenge for a great teacher,” says Boal. “She had the time and wanted to take it on. You could see the frustration in the studio, but that’s how you get where you want to go.”

The sheer determination of both dancer and teacher is evident in the film, which features extensive studio footage. If nothing else, the film offers an unvarnished look at the plain hard work it takes to be a dancer. (Sar didn’t speak any English when he arrived, so in addition to studying with Kostritzky, he started English classes through Berlitz.) That summer he also trained at the New York State School for the Arts in Saratoga and at the Rock School in Philadelphia.

According to Kostritzky, their early relationship had its ups and downs. “It was very difficult: He didn’t speak my language, I didn’t speak his language, everything that was beautiful to me was ugly to him,” she says. “When you are a foreigner, you miss your parents, you miss your country, people make fun of the way you speak. I understood him, so we had a bonding experience. We were nice to each other, but it was also rough. Where he comes from, a woman doesn’t tell a man what to do. We talk about, ‘Oh, I miss the food,’ but then I tell him what to do and he becomes a man! We didn’t fight, but it was boot camp, for him and for me.”

Everything seemed difficult to Sar at first. Turning out was a foreign concept and his teachers were frustrated when he didn’t finish combinations. “Olga had to break me a little bit. She would yell at me a lot and I would get mad, so I would try to do better so I wouldn’t get yelled at,” he jokes. But as he improved, he became more enthusiastic about coming to the studio and trying new things. With his teacher’s patience and persistence, he began to enjoy the new dance idiom bit by bit.

“In the beginning I don’t think he liked it; he just wanted to prove to himself he could do it,” Kostritzky says. “But when we went to the center floor, started to jump, do some exercises, I see his interest changed. We motivated each other, actually. I was amazed at the speed he learned.”

Sar especially enjoyed jumping, which he said gave him a feeling of freedom. He began to catch up with his peers. “Olga is the teacher of many professional dancers, so the fact she would spend her time with me was great. It made me work a little bit harder,” he says.

The experience stretched Kostritzky as well. “Every day was an enormous amount of learning,” she says. “It was the biggest, hardest, and most satisfying experience of my life. I have a lot of beautiful dancers, but when you have someone come from the other side of the world—from the moon!—you learn a lot about yourself.”

Transition time
The hard work paid off. In the fall of 2000, with the approval of teachers who evaluated his progress, Sar started at SAB’s Boys 3 level. By January, he had moved up to Boys 4. The next three years brought intermediate training and the year after that, advanced. The visit had turned into an extended stay.

Sar faced both physical and cultural challenges in class. “Poor Sy had some problems with leg cramps, moments where he felt like his legs would freeze,” says Boal. “Sometimes he wanted to do his own interpretation of the combination, and that can be difficult. It comes through on the film—he’s one of the sweetest human beings with good intentions, but he was facing strict pedagogy.”

Bass and Boal noted that Sar did have some natural gifts: a big jump, musicality, stage presence, good proportions, and a very stretched Achilles tendon. (“Cambodians don’t sit on chairs; they sit on their heels,” Bass says.) He also possessed a strong work ethic and a fair amount of grit. When he began training, he was taking class with children half his age, as well as battling culture shock and a language barrier. Besides a rigorous dance training schedule, he had enrolled in the Professional Children’s School. Boal recalls that Sar had high expectations of himself—and was often hard on himself.

“You have to study all these subjects in English, so it was hard, but there are other students there who aren’t too much better than me,” Sar says with a laugh. “I had some English tutor a little bit, but a lot of it was my own studying. I used my own dictionary and stuff like that. Just walking around, I heard a lot.”

To combat homesickness, he spent time with SAB’s director of student life, who took him out for pizza, and visited the Cambodian family of his translator, where he could relax over familiar foods and conversation. Over time, he made friends and began to have a social life. “Everyone breathed a sigh of relief” about that, Boal says. “He’s very likable.”

Bass says that Sar was something of a stoic, working quietly and without complaint. “The hardest thing was not the work, it was the culture,” she says. “It was very isolating and lonely for him. That was the point where I said to myself, ‘What have I done?’ To this day, I don’t know what was going on in his head. I think he didn’t want to disappoint me, which was hard. We had multiple conversations—at the end of maybe four or five years, I was really sure he loved it. I wasn’t sure he loved it at first, but I wonder how someone could do something so well if they didn’t love it.”

Bass and Kostritzky also persuaded Sar that competing at Varna might be a good experience. At first, he balked. “I just don’t like competing so much, and there wasn’t time to prepare much,” he says. “So we decided to go there and just have an experience. But I’m glad I went—it’s a popular competition, it’s a big one, and I think I’m the first Cambodian there. They flew my flag, so that was good. A lot of people would do the same thing but do it differently, so it was interesting. I learned some tricks.”

Sar also managed to visit home, on one occasion performing ballet for many first-time balletgoers at the reopening of the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh. There were surprises on both sides of the curtain. “The first time going back home—it’s really different, really strange,” he says. “You don’t see how things change in the village when you go away so far and come back. You get shocked a little bit. I do get homesick. I just have to remind myself that I have my whole family back there.”

A new life
Toward the end of his advanced classes, Sar began thinking about his next step. “I couldn’t decide at the time if I wanted to stick with it or do it a little bit and go back home,” he said. “But I kept doing it—nobody told me to do it. There was a little bit of pressure, but I decided if it gets too much, I’ll stop. There was some pressure from my family. It’s hard for someone to leave the country; people expect something. But they kept encouraging me, telling me, ‘It’s a good opportunity, so do what you can.’

“I did put some pressure on myself—for me to catch up, I have to do that,” he continues. “At some point, I thought ‘It can’t be too difficult,’ so I kept working myself.” (In an on-camera moment many dancers will recognize, Sar’s parents tell Bass that they’re proud of his progress, although his father says he wishes Sar did something more stable, like taking a government job.)

Sar took as many auditions as he could, said Boal, who at that time was transitioning from teaching at SAB to becoming the artistic director of Pacific Northwest Ballet. Boal felt that Sar deserved a chance, and made personal calls to directors to plead his case.

But at 5-foot-7, Sar was not the 6-foot-tall romantic lead that many directors were looking for. So Boal invited Sar to try the PNB School for the summer. Sar liked it and was enrolled as a student; eventually, PNB became his next home. “At the end of that year, I didn’t have a lot of boys, so I hired my best girl and my best boy, which was Sy,” Boal says.

So pleased was Boal with Sar’s progress that he offered Sar a job with Pacific Northwest Ballet as an apprentice in 2006; he was promoted to the corps de ballet in 2007. Since then, he has danced a few featured roles—the Sword Dancer doll and Dervish in Nutcracker, the jester in La Sonnambula. He also danced a solo in Benjamin Millepied’s 3 Movements, choreographed at PNB.

Nobody is sure what the future holds. “He has challenges every day in his dancing that he knows about and is working on,” Boal says. “Because of his height, it’s difficult [for him] to partner a ballerina, so he’s hard to cast in some roles. He’ll have to see in the long run if this is the right fit for him. We usually ask if people are interested in doing choreography and he hasn’t expressed that to me. He’s still immersed in learning roles.”

Kostritzky, who periodically speaks with Sar by phone, thinks he just needs a partner his own size. “I told him, ‘Get a girl from the corps and practice the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux. It would be good for both you.” She doesn’t think his stature should necessarily hinder him. “He could do the first movement from Symphony in C, Coppélia. He could do the first pas in Swan Lake. He could do a lot of things,” she says.

Sar plans to stick with ballet for the next five years. “I’m also looking forward to going to school and picking up something I’m interested in, so when I quit dancing maybe it will help me,” he said. “I have to think what I like to do, and what is good for the long run.”

Editor’s note: Just as Sokvannara Sar never set out to be a ballet dancer, Anne Bass never intended to be a documentary filmmaker. Dancing Across Borders began as a video record of Sar’s progress to send to his parents back home, then developed into a full-length documentary. It debuted at the 2009 Seattle International Film Festival and was shown at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in August and at the San Diego Asian Film Festival in October. Theatrical release and distribution are still in the works.


Preserving a Culture


After the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge, traditional Cambodian dance lives on

By Nancy Wozny

Dancing “to save your life” has a literal meaning for classical Cambodian dancer, teacher, and choreographer Sophiline Cheam Shapiro. Sophiline, now 41, lived through some of the most turbulent times in her country’s history. She was 8 years old when the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia in 1975. She lost her father, two brothers, her grandmother, and many other relatives during this time, as most families did. Today Sophiline is one of the most significant artists in the movement for the preservation of classical Cambodian dance.

 (Photo by Michael Burr)

Dances like Apsara, performed by Khmer ArtsAcademy, include stylized movements with sculpted hand gestures that communicate a story. (Photo by Michael Burr)

Sophiline’s story reveals the deep connections between a country’s culture and politics. From 1975 to 1979 the dancers of the royal court, all graduates of the National School of Fine Arts (NSFA), which has had various names over the years, went into hiding for fear of being killed by the Khmer Rouge, which ruled Cambodia during that time. With a motto of “To keep you is no benefit, to kill you is no loss,” the regime is most remembered for the brutal deaths of 1.5 million Cambodians.

During that regime, an estimated 90 percent of Cambodia’s classical dancers perished, and the art form seemed to face certain extinction. After the Vietnamese drove out the Khmer Rouge in 1979, the remaining dancers sought out each other for support. In 1980, the government organized a national arts festival in Phnom Penh in order to determine how many artists were still alive, and in 1981 the National School of Fine Arts reopened.

However, the new government questioned the relevancy of an art form associated with the gods, royalty, and feudalism. So for the second time in its 1,000-year history, classical Cambodian dance faced extinction. Its survival came at a cost: The government heavily politicized the dances with new themes that glorified Marxism and Leninism. It then sent out a troupe of NSFA students and faculty (on foreign tours, it was sometimes called the Classical Dance Company of Cambodia) to sell its socialist message to the villagers in remote provinces.

With the fall of the Khmer Rouge, civil war broke out in Cambodia and few were safe, including the dance troupe, which Sophiline had joined after graduating in 1988 in the first class of the reborn academy. They performed outdoors on makeshift stages and traveled during the day, says Sophiline, because it was safer. “Every time we performed there was a chance we would be killed; after all, we were representing the government. We were aware of the danger we were in; there were land mines everywhere.”

Sophiline remembers one show that involved the god of thunder and the goddess of water; during a performance Khmer Rouge guerrillas showed up with weapons in hand. “Everything we did was political then—thunder may have [represented] capitalism,” she explains. She believes that the guerrillas intended to kill the troupe that day. Instead, they stayed and seemed to enjoy the dance. “Even though the work we were dancing was essentially government propaganda, the form shines through the politics. Art goes beyond this political message; it’s about beauty and the continuity of our culture,” says Sophiline. “I would like to believe [the guerrillas] connected to the beauty of the dance.”

Sophiline’s immediate family included no artists, but she found support for her life as a dancer in her extended family and teachers. She credits her uncle, Cheng Phom, the minister of culture from 1981 to 1989, as an important influence. She also mentions her dance teacher Soth Sam On as a significant mentor. “They are my heroes,” she says. “I saw them rebuild and revive classical Cambodian dance out of the ash; that was something that stayed with me. When I moved to California [to teach in 1991], I could see myself in the same situation as my uncle and my teacher—I had to start from scratch.”

Classical Cambodian dance originated in the Hindu temples of Angkor as part of the royal court. The slow, hypnotic dances were considered a form of ritual prayer. Dances linked heaven and earth—a central theme in Cambodian thought—and were believed to offer protection against floods, wars, and diseases. Today, because the country is primarily Buddhist, the dances are no longer performed as part of a religious service, though they may still be done in temples or at the royal court. They often portray Hindu mythology, which “typically tells morality tales that transcend religious classification,” says John Shapiro, Sophiline’s husband.

The dominant aesthetic in Cambodian dance involves fluidity in the arms, with the fingers bent back to form a crescent shape, the toes usually flexed, and the lower back slightly arched. A tremendous degree of suppleness and strength is required, and there is a sense of constant flow. Dances, either solos or ensemble works, include stylized movements with sculpted hand gestures (actually an alphabet) that communicate the story to the audience. The elaborate costumes of patterned silk skirts are decorated with sequins and din (metal spirals) arranged in a distinctly Cambodian pattern, usually diamond shapes. The pointed, gold headdress, or mkot, and gold-painted jewelry add to the majesty of the dancer. Though classical dance is primarily a female form, men dance as well, in roles such as monkeys, hermits, pirates, scribes, horses, and birds.

Today Sophiline and John run Khmer Arts, which includes four components in two countries: The academy, based in Long Beach, California; Khmer Arts Ensemble, a 31-member professional dance company based in Cambodia; a media project; and an archive. The couple and their twin 8-year-old boys travel between Cambodia and Long Beach frequently. “It’s difficult but beneficial, because it allows me to build connections in two places,” says Sophiline. “It’s important that we continue to have a presence in Cambodia, and being at the source connects me to the roots of the form itself.”

For John, who manages the organization, the success of the operation depends on having both sites be self-sustaining. Economic factors are involved as well; the cost of living in Cambodia is far less than in the United States. “It would be impossible to maintain a company of that size in California,” says John.

Prior to launching the academy in 2002 Sophiline taught at several Cambodian community organizations in Long Beach. “In 2002 it became apparent that we needed more tools—greater access to resources that would lead to the program’s growth and developmentand it became more practical to have our own organization,” says John. Long Beach has the largest Cambodian population outside of Asia. An exchange program at Long Beach State University and a nearby military base that dealt with displaced populations after the war combined to create a critical mass of Cambodians, continuing the growth of the community. “The first wave of immigrants then sponsored the next wave,” says John. “Long Beach is considered the capital of the Cambodian diaspora.”

The academy, based in the “Cambodia Town” section of Long Beach, offers free training for students ages 5 through adult in a 2,200-square-foot warehouse. Some parents donate $20 a month, but contributing is not mandatory. “Most of this generation of parents were exposed to dance classes in refugee camps, where it was free,” says John. “So parents may pay for their children’s music classes, but dance was always free.” Classes, which last two hours and take place four days a week, are taught by a faculty of five, which includes Sophiline when she is on site. The class structure allows for students to come only once a week or as many as four times a week.

There is no set curriculum for teaching classical Cambodian dance. “This form exists in the mind and the body of the dancer-teacher, and this is the way it has been taught since the beginning,” says John. Each class begins with a set warm-up that involves hand and elbow stretches necessary to get the correct shape of the hands.

Dancers start their training between ages 5 and 8. “Training is very hands-on,” says Sophiline. “And one-on-one coaching is part of the tradition. I prefer for the whole class to benefit from that kind of instruction, so if I am working on a small detail I want the entire class to benefit.”

“Students at the National School of Fine Arts start their training at 8 years old and graduate at 18. For the Khmer Arts Ensemble, we give them advanced training after that,” says John. “So in a sense, training never ends. Students who have joined our Long Beach faculty have trained for a minimum of five years.”

Performance is a big part of the students’ life at the academy. “Everyone can perform in the Cambodian new year celebration in April,” says Sophiline, “while our more serious students perform in various festivals and universities. We mix the students with professionals, faculty, and guest artists.” Sophiline believes the time will come when her top students may join the professional troupe.

The Khmer Arts Ensemble dancers, all graduates of NSFA, perform a classical canon along with new work and tour the world with seven musicians and two singers. The repertory includes works created mostly during the 1950s and 1960s, which was an extraordinarily creative time, and new works by Sophiline. The company also boasts the largest collection of classical Cambodian costumes in the world, and that includes Cambodia. “The goal is to make the ensemble self-sufficient, as it receives no funding from the government,” says John.

There is no set curriculum for teaching classical Cambodian dance. ‘This form exists in the mind and the body of the dancer-teacher, and this is the way it has been taught since the beginning.’ —John Shapiro

Sophiline’s work exists in two worlds: The company performs at such high-profile art events as the Venice Biennale as well as at world dance festivals. Last November Sophiline’s Shir Ha-Shirim, set to John Zorn’s music, premiered at the Guggenheim Museum in New York as part of the museum’s Works & Process program. Her somewhat controversial dances reflect and criticize Cambodian culture and tell contemporary stories from the Cambodian diaspora.

“Our work is not ethno-nostalgia, in that we are not just interested in re-creating a Cambodia of the past,” says John. Sophiline’s groundbreaking 2000 dance, Samritechak (based on Othello), which premiered in Phnom Penh, dealt with the Khmer Rouge’s failure to assume responsibility for its actions. Sophiline’s 2002 piece, The Glass Box, explores the confinements of tradition, while her seminal Seasons of Migration (2005), which toured the United States, deals with culture shock.

Khmer Arts Media is building a collection of books, films, videos, and recordings. So far it has produced one full-length documentary, on Seasons of Migration, a book, and four music CDs. The Shapiros are working with a German organization to produce their first feature film. The fourth component of Khmer Arts is the archives, kept in Cambodia, with digitized versions available to the public at Phnom Penh’s Audiovisual Resource Center Bophana. “After 1979, there were only a handful of artists that brought [classical dance] back to life; the world almost lost this precious art form,” says John. “The archive exists to protect from that ever happening again.”

Sophiline has distinguished herself as a choreographer and teacher who is moving Cambodian dance further into relevancy for today’s global culture. She believes that her mission is larger than serving just the Cambodian people. “I want to make dances that respond to the world I live in,” she says. “This is for all of humanity. I wanted to bring this knowledge to the world.”


Sharing Cultures in the Colorado Valley


Aspen Santa Fe Ballet’s Folklorico Mexicano program

By Lisa Traiger

Alexandra loves the chance to travel and see new places. Iris loves to meet new friends from other towns. Sisters Solana and Tavia love to wear the wide-flounced skirts and make a statement, loud and clear, with their feet.

As members of Folklorico Mexicano, a dance program for kindergarteners through high schoolers sponsored by Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, these children are being taught more than traditional dance steps. Ask Francisco Nevarez, the program’s director in the Aspen area. They’re learning about culture and history, about perseverance and hard work, about friendship and sharing. Folklorico Mexicano is more than an after-school dance class. It’s a life class. But don’t tell the kids, up to 130 of them in the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado, home to Aspen and Snowmass, playgrounds for the rich and famous.

In the valley, in towns surrounding these wintertime resorts, resides an increasing population of Hispanic workers who have joined the service economy as construction workers, gardeners, and housekeepers to the rich and pampered. They commute from Carbondale, Basalt, and Glenwood Springs. But who’s watching the kids while their parents are pulling 10- or 12-hour shifts?

Nevarez by day serves as community liaison to the Hispanic community at Basalt Middle School. At 3:30 p.m. he changes his shoes and becomes a teacher, instructing his willing charges in the traditional dances he learned as a child growing up in northern Mexico. At 14 he danced with a professional folkloric company in his home state of Chihuahua. After coming to the United States 17 years ago, he founded a company, Mexico: Images and Traditions Folkloric Group, in New York, which was made up of adults and children from the community.

In 2002, when Nevarez arrived in Aspen, the snowy mountains and vast valley reminded him of his home terrain in Chihuahua. That first year he taught after-school classes in Mexican dance to about 25 or 30 kids; the next year, 70. In 2006, under Nevarez’s direction, the troupe traveled to the third Las Vegas International Folk Dance Festival, where it received four first-place awards for best group, best production, duo, and trio. Last season Nevarez had about 130 children under his tutelage. In fall 2007 he started with 80 and expected that number to grow. They dance a minimum of six hours weekly and perform in local festivals, at church and community events, and in theaters a dozen times a season.         

Aspen Santa Fe Ballet director Jean-Philippe Malaty took a break after a rehearsal in Santa Fe, where the 10-member troupe is based, to explain the company’s commitment to the Folklorico Mexicano program. “We are a ballet company, but we are also an organization rooted in our community. We looked at our community and decided it was time to break down the barriers.” A former dancer who had had his fill of ballet company lecture/demonstrations in school gymnasiums, he expresses disdain for the typical arts-in-education assembly: “Too many times a company tries to push its product on the children with little or no success. A lecture/demonstration at 8:00 in the morning is not going to develop dancers or even audience members. A lot of organizations develop in-school programming simply to get the funding.”

Malaty worked backwards: “We have a large Hispanic community and we looked at what they needed.” He’s not worried about serving the ballet company’s artistic goals. Aspen Santa Fe Ballet—which emerged in 1996 from the Aspen Ballet Company and School, founded six years earlier by Bebe Schweppe—is unique among arts organizations for sharing its resources among two communities that are a six-hour car drive away from each other—on a good day, when mountain passes are cleared of snow. Malaty isn’t looking to develop future ballet dancers from the Folklorico Mexicano program. That’s beside the point. “We’re trying to teach these children their culture, develop pride in their background. While many of these children were born here, their parents are from Mexico. We try to teach them that Mexico is a very rich culture with European and Native American influences; every region of the country has a beautiful costume and a story.” Maybe, Malaty continues, some will grow up to attend ballet concerts, or send their own children to dance classes. But more important and more immediate, he wants to instill pride in children and teach them about their cultural heritage.         

As members of Folklorico Mexicano, these children are being taught more than traditional dance steps. They’re learning about culture and history, about perseverance and hard work, about friendship and sharing.

Equally significant is sharing this rich culture with the Anglo population. Karla Teitler’s two daughters are huge fans. The girls, Solana and Tavia, tried ballet classes when they were younger, but they weren’t all that interested or impressed. When they saw the colors and swirls of the skirts and heard the rhythms of Folklorico Mexicano, they were hooked. “My children go to a school where they are a minority,” notes Teitler, a pre-kindergarten teacher at Crystal River Elementary, which her girls attend. “This program allows them to see other children’s culture and background, and it helps us as parents break down cultural barriers and interact with other parents.”

Nevarez also appreciates the mix of Hispanic and Anglo students he teaches. Though Anglos number only about 10 percent in the program, he is adamant about including anyone who desires to dance. When he instructs, he teaches dances using both Spanish and English, which is perfect for the Teitlers, who are being raised in a bilingual household. It’s also great for Ivan Loya, 11, a sixth-grader who also plays soccer. Loya enjoys the exercise and friends he has made in Folklorico Mexicano. He also gets to reinforce his Spanish, which he speaks at home, while practicing English in a non-academic setting. It’s equally effective for children of Spanish-speaking immigrants, who hear their mother tongue and English side by side. Anglos, too, pick up Spanish words—derecho, izquierda, vuelta en circulo—right, left, turn in a circle.           

While parents pay only a $25 annual registration fee for their children and shoes and costumes are provided on loan from the company, they and the children must commit to attending rehearsals and performances. But that’s not all; parents are expected to help in some other way, with costumes, driving, concessions, fund-raising, or as extra hands backstage. And the children, too, must make a commitment to maintaining good grades. The program costs the ballet $140,000 annually, according to Malaty, much of it for costumes and transportation. But with funding initially from the Colorado Trust Foundation and now from a consortium of Aspen-area funders, Folklorico Mexicano continues to grow. A sister program six hours away in Santa Fe has just begun its second year.

Christian Kingsbury, Basalt Middle School’s principal, loves the program and the work Nevarez does, during school and after. “Folklorico Mexicano really gets kids hooked into the school, working hard, being part of a team,” Kingsbury says. “These are elements that help kids succeed in school and later on succeed in life. They show up and they work hard.”

Nevarez, or Paco, his nickname among the children, is a tough taskmaster. The children rehearse from 3:30 to 7:00 p.m. twice weekly and meet on Saturdays when a performance nears. The day report cards arrive, the students must line up to show Paco their grades. And if he’s not happy, they don’t dance again until their grades come up. He’s been known, he admits, to call a teacher to get the full report on a slacking student.

Iris Flores, 12, is in her fifth year with Folklorico Mexicano. A seventh-grader born in Veracruz, Mexico, but living in Aspen, she relishes the time spent dancing with friends. “It keeps me connected to my culture,” she says. “I want to keeping dancing at least until I finish high school.”

Tivo Loya, from Carbondale, has two children in the program, Andy and Ivan. “I think it’s a really good program for kids to do after school,” he says. “It keeps them away from the video games.” As a youth Loya too was a dancer in a folkloric company back in his native Mexico. Today he drives his kids 15 miles, some days across snowy passes, for rehearsals. A painter, he pointed to a recent graduate of the Aspen Santa Fe program who used his experience performing with the award-winning dance troupe to enhance his college application. It’s something he hopes will help his children one day as well.

Malaty is proud of Aspen Santa Fe Ballet’s growing prominence and increasing critical acclaim on stages across the country, but he believes in his heart that Folklorico Mexicano may ultimately be his company’s most important contribution. “We have zero crossover in our folklorico program and our ballet program,” he notes, “which shows us we were right in our approach.” Folklorico Mexicano wasn’t intended to create ballet dancers, and since its founding in 2000 it hasn’t.

Nevarez appreciates the way the children from different towns across the valley and different cultures across the border can dance so easily together in school cafeterias and gymnasiums and onstage. “When we have a performance,” he says, “I tell them, ‘You’re not from Basalt; you’re not from Carbondale; you’re not from Aspen. You’re not Americans; you’re not Mexicans; you’re not Salvadorans. You’re all Aspen Santa Fe Ballet Folklorico Mexicano.” And they are.


Ancient Dances


Chinese dance education links North America to Asian culture

By Nancy Wozny

Dance is uniquely empowered to carry the nuances of a culture. For the millions of Chinese people living in the United States and Canada today, dance can be a way to maintain ties to the homeland. Often parents want their children to embrace their culture, and dance can be a potent way to do just that. The landscape of cities with large Asian populations is dotted with studios that offer serious study in folk and classical forms of Chinese dance.

Nicole Nguyen and Dance of Asian America dancers in "Kingdom of Heaven," in the 2007 premiere of Heaven and Earth at Houston's Hobby Center for the Performing Arts. (Photo courtesy Dance of Asian America and Mitsi Dancing School)

Running a Chinese dance program comes with a unique set of challenges. Typically, academic achievement ranks high on the list of Chinese parents’ priorities, which often limits time in the dance studio to once a week. But that achievement factor also spills over into dance. It’s not unusual to find that even once-a-week students (and their parents) take their commitments seriously, arriving on time, dressed appropriately, and ready to learn. Pride in cultural knowledge is equally high, and parents expect a lot to happen in a short amount of time. They also want the best quality and the best prices. However, teachers can also expect to experience respect for their authority.

Houston is home to several Chinese dance companies and schools. Mitsi Dancing School has an eye-catching sign that reads “Ballet, Tap, Jazz, and Chinese Dance” in both English and Chinese. (Street signs in this part of Houston are also written in both languages.) Inside, the walls are graced with photos of Chinese contemporary teachers and dancers, with bios in both languages. Competition trophies and plaques testify that the studio straddles two worlds, the ancient Chinese one and the everyday one of a typical dance studio.

Mitsi Shen started Mitsi Dancing School in 1984, three years after she arrived in Houston from Beijing. In between she earned the gold medal at the National Dance Fever Competition in 1983. As a former principal dancer and teacher in the Shanghai Dance Troupe, she was already a respected name in dance. The seeds for her migration from Beijing to Houston were planted when she met Ben Stevenson, then the artistic director of Houston Ballet, who was in China teaching. The experience put Houston on the dance map for her, so much so that she named her daughter (and assistant director of the studio), Janie Yao, after HB former principal dancer Janie Parker. Shen also knew that Houston was home to a large Chinese population, possibly in need of expert dance education. “For a long time China closed the doors on Western companies so we could not see anything,” she says. “We were trained only by Russians.” Watching the Houston Ballet dancers opened her eyes. “They were so graceful,” recalls Shen.

Shen realized that dance would be the perfect way for children of Chinese parents to learn about their culture. More and more of her friends said they wanted some form of cultural education for their children. “It was an opportunity for me to share my knowledge of Chinese dance and ballet,” says Shen. “They wanted to learn and I wanted to teach.”

Eventually the studio expanded to three locations, with students from Cambodia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Vietnam, and Malaysia. Shen and her teachers speak both Chinese and English in class because the languages spoken in the students’ homes vary. “Parents tend to speak Chinese to their children,” says Shen. Some students attend once a week for Chinese dance while others stay for ballet and jazz. The annual recital is a combination of jazz, ballet, modern, and Chinese dance. Shen set up her program to be flexible. “We urge our students to study jazz and ballet,” she says, “but we understand when they cannot commit to the time.” The warm-ups for the Chinese dances are designed to introduce the themes and qualities of each dance, and the students learn to use fans, hats, and scarves as appropriate.

Most of the Chinese people in the United States are from the Han region, whose people make up the largest component (around 91 percent) of the 56 ethnic groups in China. Dances from the various regions differ widely and often dramatically, depending on the climate and the landscape. In the hot southern region the movements tend to be small and delicate; in Mongolia, where there are vast grasslands, broad movements are characteristic. “In Tibetan dance you see a lot of bouncing in the knees,” says Shen. “That’s because the people need to walk up and down mountains.”

Yao, well known in Houston’s Asian community as a cultural leader and director of high-quality performances, is a certified teacher of the Beijing Dance Academy Chinese Dance Syllabus, which the Mitsi faculty uses. She earned a BFA in dance performance from Southern Methodist University and founded the studio’s professional company, Dance of Asian America, whose members include the top students and guest artists from China. Yao and her mother travel to China to see the top choreographers and teachers, many of whom they bring back to perform with the studio company and teach master classes. “Dance is exploding in China right now,” says Yao, who is determined to educate audiences in the nuances of her art form. “Most people still think dragons and fans when it comes to Chinese dance. It’s so much richer than that, and most dancers in China today have extensive training in ballet.”

Mitsi Shen realized that dance would be the perfect way for children of Chinese parents to learn about their culture. ‘It was an opportunity for me to share my knowledge of Chinese dance and ballet,’ she says.

In Canada, Lorita Leung of Vancouver trains students in Chinese dance and ballet. Lorita Leung Dance Academy was the first dance studio in North America to use the acclaimed Beijing syllabus, which covers classical dance forms plus national and folk dances—Han, Tibetan, Mongolian, Uyger, Korean, Tai, Miao, and Yi, to name a few. The dancing includes the use of props such as fans, ribbons, scarves, sleeves, swords, bows, handkerchiefs, and hats. Students must pass yearly examinations given by a visiting teacher in order to advance to the next level. Leung stresses how important it is for Chinese children to learn about their culture. “Each dance has its own story,” she says.

Leung danced professionally in China and Korea, then moved to Hong Kong during the 1960s, where she choreographed and taught in the movie industry. “I was gone during the entire Mao regime,” she says, noting the destruction wrought on her culture’s arts during that time. In 1970 she started a school in her home to serve Vancouver’s growing Asian population; some 36 years later it is one of Canada’s top schools.

The studio serves Canadian-born students of Chinese heritage, some of whom are second or third generation, as well as new immigrants who want to continue their training. Adhering to the syllabus makes it easy for them to start where they left off, and vice versa for students returning to China. All of her Chinese dance teachers are certified and stay current with updates on the training. Using the syllabus is often an economic hardship, since some years only a few students might be at a certain level. The class goes forward anyway, to meet the standards of the syllabus.

Many of Leung’s students speak several languages, including Mandarin and Chinese; those who aren’t fluent pick up some language skills in the multilingual classes. The studio also houses a semiprofessional dance company that performs throughout Vancouver. In addition, Leung runs a biennial Chinese dance competition, which draws dancers from Canada and the States. “We do things differently,” says Leung. “We bring in teachers from China, from the ministry of dance. The kids learn a lot. It’s a chance to exchange ideas, and that’s how we get better.”

Leung has turned over the day-to-day operation of the studio to her daughter, Jessica Jone, who currently serves as vice principal and also runs Moving Dragon, a company that fuses contemporary and Chinese dance. Jone, who is first-generation Chinese on her mother’s side and fourth generation on her father’s, is well versed in Chinese, ballet, and modern dance. “Dance provides a direct link to culture. Some of our students know more about Chinese culture than their third- and fourth-generation parents,” she says. Jone voices concerns about her students’ level of commitment, with all their extracurricular academic activities. “It makes it hard for us. We would love for them to come two and three times a week. The majority of parents are not prepared for that commitment,” she says.

Some teachers want to focus only on Chinese dance. Hwee-Eng Lee has found success by narrowing her offerings, although she is trained in jazz, ballet, and modern dance. A native of Singapore, Lee began her dance training in ballet, adding Chinese dance later. A graduate of Boston College, she taught ballet at State University of New York in Cortland. She houses her school at the Chinese Cultural Center in Chamblee, GA, an area near Atlanta where one can find all things Chinese. It’s a frequent destination for Asian Americans. “This is a great location for me. It makes it easy for the parents,” says Lee. “They can go grocery shopping or take another child to his Chinese language classes.

She started her school in 1986, offering classes for ages 5 to adult and teaching in English because some of her students do not speak Chinese. “I have to be careful not to discourage the children; the dance is the most important part,” says Lee. All of her children perform, especially during Chinese New Year. Lee especially enjoys teaching the Chinese-born students who have been adopted by non-Chinese parents. She is grateful for the opportunity to help these children fill in the missing pieces of their history. “These parents care so deeply that their children learn about their culture.” In 1991 Lee founded the Atlanta Chinese Dance Company, which performed in the opening and closing ceremonies of the 1996 Olympic Games.

Although Lee is well acquainted with the Beijing syllabus, she prefers to design her own program, which covers folk and classical forms from several regions. Given the changes in dance in China—better training in ballet and acrobatics; Western-influenced choreography; and flourishing dance competitions—Lee worries about how well traditional forms are being preserved. She does her best to provide a thorough education in that one hour per week she teaches the children. “I give an overall education,” says Lee. “I want it to be more about the techniques than the examinations. For my students it’s not just about learning about their culture; it’s also a time to socialize.” She adds, “I encourage my students to study ballet to strengthen their technique. My advanced students study ballet outside of my school.”

These three studios, along with many others across North America, are doing their part to pass along the beauty, history, and stunning variety of Chinese culture through dance. Take a look at the dance events in your community—a 5,000-year-old dance may be happening at a studio near you.

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