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Ancient Dances

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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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October 2014
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