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Saturday, April 12, 2014

Going Tribal

In costume for the Wa Fire Dance

It’s not too often that I get to let my hair down, literally, and it’s even more rare that I get to toss it about without reserve. I’ve never been in a mosh pit or engaged in much head-banging. Maybe I’m missing out, but in dancing this unique piece I don’t particularly feel any loss. 

The Wa people live in the south of China, in the Yunnan province, bordering Burma and Thailand. They also live in those countries as well, but since some technically live within China’s borders I am lucky enough to have the opportunity to learn their dance and culture as a part of my Chinese ethnic dance studies. 

People around the world have tended to respect, fear, and revere the elements as part of cultural tradition. The Wa have their fire worship. The dance I’ve been working on and have performed is a tribute to the nurturing and fearsome powers of fire. It is absolutely the most non-classical and raw tribal movement I’ve ever formally learned, and I love it. 

My hair was to the prop, and the method of head-thrashing was very precise. I admit it felt pretty good once I got the hang of it, as long as I was fully warmed up. Whiplash is not fun.

Having fun after the show with fellow dancer Jenny Fong!
My teacher suggested I flat-iron my hair to make myself look more like the traditional image of a Wa girl, i.e. with long and very incredibly straight hair. My hair is poofy, wavy, and generally given to its own ideas of what shape it will take any particular day. From experience I know that flat-ironing would tame my locks down for about five minutes before rebelling, so I knew that would be a losing battle. (My compromise? Lots of pins.) Besides, I thought: Hey, I’m the person dancing this piece so I might as well be me but in as Wa a way as possible, through my movements. 

While the overall effect of the dance is to be wild and free, I discovered that it takes even more control and discipline to create movements that have form and character; otherwise it becomes nothing more than a messy romp.

That said, even my teacher observed that my body took to this tribal style and choreography more quickly than anything else I’ve ever learned. My mother did always say to me that I was a little wild thing.

Friday, February 14, 2014

A Rose for Valentine's Day


Romance can be experienced in many different ways, whether enjoyed as a couple, with close friends - even family - or during a quiet moment of reflection as an individual in this wonderful world.

I love this ethnic Uighur dance because it celebrates the idea of romance and all the giddy possibilities that come with it, but it's enacted through the bright imagination of one. The inspiration? A red rose. That's all it takes, sometimes!

Wishing You a wonderful Valentine's Day, wherever you are, whoever you're with (or not!), and however you choose to spend your day. An excuse isn't necessary, really. Celebrate life!  

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Show Will Go On!


My left foot was in fairly excruciating pain and I had a couple of hours to decide if I was going to pull out of the show that night. Despite the painkillers and anti-inflammatories, every time I even began to point my foot a sharp stab shot through me, up almost to my knee. I knew I'd landed a bit off one too many times from jumping in rehearsal, and the tiny bones in the top of my foot were probably misaligned. All too often, dancers ignore pain as part of daily wear and tear, until it's a bit late.

I thought I wouldn't be able to dance that evening every time I felt the pain and looked at my swollen foot, but the only times I'd pulled out of a performance were because I was either completely bedridden with the flu or I'd injured myself to the point of not being able to physically leave the house. In other words, if I could get my body out the door, I would dance.

And so I danced, and during those moments onstage I was happy. I could have danced more  - danced bigger without fear - but oddly enough there was no fear in my heart even though my body registered the pain. In fact, I was more anxious about watching the video later, preparing to wince at a half-baked performance. I was relieved to see that I appeared to be enjoying myself as much as I had felt while dancing onstage.

These are the times I pray that the love that burns inside me shines brighter than any technical shortcomings. I hope that you, too, can feel a bit of the joy I wish to give every chance I get to dance.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Rediscovering Why I Dance

Dancing atop the grand staircase at the Asian Art Museum

It’s been another hiatus, but I’m happy to report that I’m back and going strong! After a somewhat low period, my love of dance has been thoroughly reinvigorated. How? By performing! In the months nursing my injury, I’d forgotten what I was working for. It wasn’t until I was called for a job performing for a private event at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco a couple of months ago that I remembered, with full force, just how much I love to dance.


I’d designed a program that spanned different ethnicities, in styles that would maximize the cultural breadth of China: Yi (southern), Uighur (western), and Han (northeastern). In terms of color, it was: bright pink, bright orange, and bright pink! It’s funny, because blue is my favorite color and I hardly have any costumes in that hue. Still, I’d selected dances and costumes that were diverse from one another and beautifully designed and made.  


I had four sets, from the moment guests arrived in the beautiful foyer to the very end, as they exited. Hello, and goodbye! I received numerous compliments and questions about what ethnicities my costumes and dances represented, which gave me such joy. Although, I do my best to limit any conversation with guests; when performing as a dancer at a function it’s important to stay professional. But, I didn’t want to be rude and ignore people point blank. And of course, I enjoy sharing with people the cultures behind the dance styles.

I warmed up amongst beautiful Chinese porcelains while waiting to perform. 


On the heels of this job was a stage show in which I performed a Yi ethnic minority dance from Yunnan in the south of China. Still on a high from performing at the Asian Art Museum event, I found a renewed energy during my rehearsals. Suddenly, instead of going through the movements, I was actually living the dance. I was ... dancing!

It’s really true; knowing the movements and being able to accomplish the technical requirements of a dance by itself does not constitute dancing. You could call it movement, or a series of linked movements. Dancing, however, is imbued with life. There is a breathing, an ebb and flow, a sense of direction embodied by rhythm and energy. There is a spirit that the movement serves to set free.  


I’d temporarily lost that spirit in the months before. I’d worked diligently on keeping in shape and learning dances, but my heart wasn’t in it. It’s hard to feel motivated when the the most basic movements required in my style of dancing causes sharp pain. Still, I’m glad that at least my sense of basic dedication (and the strong influence of habit) to dance, stretch, and exercise kept me going.


The difference in my experience after regaining my inner spirit for dance was palpable. When rehearsing, I felt my face break into smiles so natural and fitting for each moment of the dance. There was nothing premeditated or forced. I knew then, that the dance had finally begun to become a part of me, and that I was becoming the dance. 

Let’s just say I also knew I was doing something right when my teacher said at the end of my rehearsal one day, “It’s better. It’s improving.” She does not pay compliments when she doesn’t mean it, so even though she’d delivered the message rather tersely I was thrilled. And most important, it had felt *good* dancing the piece.


Just about to head backstage!


I had my usual nerves backstage, but once I was out there a strange sense of calm overtook me. It was just me and the stage again, the bright lights flooding me from the wings and above me, and the darkness out in the audience. In the back of my mind I worried that I wouldn’t be able to find center mark or the front of the stage after my series of turns, or that my slow front walkover would go wrong. But when I got to those parts, I felt no fear. My body knew what to do.

And when it was over, I lay awake at night going over my performance over and over again as I am wont to do. While I was tired and would have gladly welcomed more sleep, I knew what kept me up. I was excited. I couldn't wait to get back into the studio and work. Every chance, every moment I get to dance, is precious to me. My joy in rediscovering this knows no bounds.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Fitting In: A Mini-Study of Motivation in Ballet Dancers


A version of this piece is cross-posted at anthropologist Mike Barnes’ site, Anthropology en Pointe. For this mini-series, I was inspired by Mike’s research goals of exploring motivation and the ballet dancer: "How do professional ballet dancers accommodate shifts in motivation through a lifetime of change, success, and disappointment?" I highly recommend taking a look at Mike’s site. He poses intriguing and relevant questions, the ensuing exploration of which provides valuable insight to motivation for dancers and non-dancers alike!

Although there is a particular “look” of a classical dancer - slim body, long neck, legs, and arms, arched feet and open hips - what is a dancer but a human being, and each of us is unique. It may not be immediately evident in a line of corps dancers in a traditional classical ballet company’s production of Swan Lake, but if you look closely enough or watch each of those dancers in class or rehearsal I guarantee you will see distinct qualities not only in their bodies, but in their approach to movement. In other ensembles, the variety of physicality is a key element to the aesthetic.

Given the unique qualities of body and movement, how does a dancer find the right place for his or her career? I took a quick dive to explore this through live interviews with several professional ballet dancers of varying backgrounds, supplemented by online videos and my own experience as a dancer of non-traditional proportions. While it is not an empirical study by any means, it has given me precious insight into one of the key factors that makes or breaks a dancer’s motivation to carry on.  

What I came away with is that the journey of finding one’s own place is ultimately less about fitting in to a particular company or style; it is about trying on different “skins” - whether artistically and culturally - and asking oneself the difficult question of whether the current job is right.  

In the stories these dancers shared with me, I heard the following thematic questions emerge: 

What is my own skin: my internal artistic style and personality? 

Where can I be in my own skin and still have a fulfilling, ever-growing, and collaborative experience?

I’ll share these stories with you in a multi-part series, since each dancer is an instrument and vehicle not only for an artistic director or choreographer’s vision, but for his or her own self-actualization. I believe they deserve to be heard one at a time, to further convey the sense of individuality.

Junna Ige - Finding Home
In her fifth season dancing with Ballet San Jose, this bright-eyed dancer is pint-sized but dances with an expansiveness that makes her limbs appear miles long.  “There are very limited opportunities for the serious ballet student in Japan,” she laments, and in her mid-teens Ige left for northern Germany to further her studies.

While she consistently received top marks at the academy, when it came time to find a job she came out empty handed time and time again. After a huge effort auditioning in some eight countries in Europe, Ige headed back to Japan - the worst possible outcome for her - dejected and lost.  

In Japan, Ige taught ballet to little girls, and worked at Starbucks.  “Why was I even doing this?” she asked herself, referring not only to her predicament, but to all her years training in the hopes of becoming a professional, classical ballet dancer.  She was told over and over again at auditions that the reason there was no contract for her was: “You’re too short.”

Somehow, despite the heartbreak of so much rejection - not to mention money spent traveling for auditions - Ige decided to give herself and ballet one more chance.  She flew to North America and auditioned for several companies. “I’d never been to America.  I thought, maybe they would see things differently.”  

At Ballet San Jose, she was encouraged upon seeing dancers of different sizes and heights.  When then artistic director Dennis Nahat told her that he saw artists and not just bodies, she felt hope.  When she was offered an apprentice contract four years ago, she took it and never looked back.  

“Now I feel like I can be myself,” Ige smiles, and her voice cannot hide her joy.  “I realized I’d spent so long wanting to be something I wasn’t. I wanted not to be short.  I wanted to be tall, to be something else.  But I’m not; I’m me. And at Ballet San Jose, I was hired because I’m me!”

This fortunate circumstance has allowed Ige to gain confidence as a person and as a dancer, and it has paid off: she was promoted towards the end of the last season and is now a soloist with the company.

And, this year she carried the tremendous pressure and privilege of dancing the lead character of Kitri in Wes Chapman’s production of Don Quixote on opening night, partnered by no less than international superstar José Manuel Carreño. She pulled the full-length ballet off with determination, sass, and showed us glimpses of pure abandon.

“I love it.  Why?  It’s the dance,” she says in her lightly accented English.  Her eyes sparkle, and she doesn’t need to say any more.  She’s found her home.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Pain and Pleasure

Mid-air, trying not to think of the landing
Pain and pleasure ... who hasn't experienced this before, when it comes to something one loves? I haven't been to technique class in a very long time as I cannot point my left foot without a sharp, stabbing pain. It's as if the top of my ankle is being lanced with great gusto by a thick, sharp needle. When it first happened, I was executing the most simple tendu a la seconde. The pain was quite shocking and before I knew it I was on the floor, pushing myself off the marley with my hands to get out of the way of the other dancers.

Of course, it wasn't the tendu itself that had caused the pain. I admit that my left foot had been bothering me for quite some time, but not enough for me to have stopped and gotten it checked out. Who doesn't dance with one or more nagging discomforts at any one time? My left foot had been feeling stiff and "crunchy" for months. It suffices to say that a number of misaligned small bones, slightly swollen tendons, and a whole slew of big jumps finally did me in.

But why did it have to converge on the day the show opened?

Don't get me wrong; I'm not whining. Much greater heartbreak has occurred to dancers everywhere. But when it happens, you just have to think: Why now? You've worked so hard to prepare for the stage, and now you either can't present your work or you'll have to dance it to less than your potential. I honestly don't know which one is worse; it entirely depends on the extent to which you can dance full out with the injury.

But we dancers are gluttons for punishment, but not because we simply like suffering: Think of the burning desire to get out there and dance! That's what we've trained and rehearsed countless hours for. Dance is performance art, after all.

I couldn't give it up, so when the time came I took painkillers and tried to warm up my stiff muscles; no matter what I did I couldn't seem to warm up. I now realize it was psychological. Doubts raced through my mind: How am I going to do those big jumps? How am I going to get through anything if I can't point my foot? I'd gingerly test a movement and my heart would plummet as the pain shot through me.

In the end when I got out there, I danced my heart out as I am wont to do. When performing, it's extremely difficult to hold back or to "save" yourself to nurse an injury or to preserve endurance for subsequent shows. You want to give your all.

So, I gave it my all. Despite having taken the painkillers, the stabbing sensation was intense. Miraculously, a feeling of calm flowed through me and I smiled without having to force it. I felt real joy. I was dancing!

It goes without saying that I didn't dance the next day. Or the next day, or the day after that. But, I was satisfied; I had danced the show. Maybe the jumps weren't so pretty, but the energy was there. Now I must be patient. The extent to which I miss going to class is painful in its own way, but I will be good. It's better to be out now than push an injury too far and be out for longer ... or forever.

I can hold out for self-preservation, and even more so, for the chance to dance one more time. I'll take pain now, for the pleasure to come. 

Monday, July 30, 2012

Flesh and Blood


It seems completely obvious for a dancer to focus on movement, but I'm continually amazed by how much more I could be doing.  In fact, after today's rehearsal of an Uighur dance, I began to realize how much I wasn't doing.

To approximate what my coach, a distinguished teacher from the Beijing Dance Academy, told me in Chinese:

"Without ebb and flow, there is no contrast.  You merely have motion.  But when you focus on the origin of the movement and you know when to be soft and when to be hard, then!  Then, it becomes dance."

Another way she drove it home, after stopping me for the umpteenth time after a break in a series of turns:

"You've got the framework, but it's just the skeleton.  Breathe!  When you allow your body to fully live the movement, you build the flesh and blood.  That's what gives life to dance."

As she spoke, her eyes softened as her entire body melted into a mesmerizing fluidity of girlish coquetry.  She perfectly embodied the Uighur maiden, blushing secretly to herself at the mere thought of love.

During moments like this, I am unable to tear my eyes off of her.  How do I become that movement, so full of life?  I'm frustrated at my inability to sublimate the movement and simultaneously filled with complete adoration for my coach.  Her body, her eyes, every little thing about her, is completely captivating.

Then the moment is broken as her eyes harden and train upon me.  She's back in coach mode.  "You got that?"

Quickly I nod, not quite recovered, and try again.  And again, and again.  We run the dance several more times, and by the end I'm so far gone I barely hold the last pose, a snap backbend.  My coach is a tough trainer, but she takes pity on me at the end of the rehearsal.

"When you know the steps better, you'll get there," she said, her gaze softer.  You've already improved.  Be unafraid, let your body live the movement."  In a split second, her eyes sharpen.  "And for heaven's sake, let your neck go!"

"Yes, Teacher," I said, smiling, and do what I do at the end of every class: She dismisses me, and I bow with a hearty "Thank you, Teacher!" This formality is a given in China, and while my coach does not enforce it much here in the States I am careful to always show my respect.  Her proud, lifted chin does not quite hide her satisfied smile of approval.

Back home, I move in front of the mirror or in the light reflected off a window in the evenings, trying to find, and then grow, the movements within my body.  Instead of wearing them like an ill-fitting outfit, I must learn to activate them seamlessly as I tap into the appropriate state of being. Only then will I become the flesh and blood that is my dance.