Chinese dance connects junior to her heritage

By Julie Barzilay

Sprained ankles, sore muscles and back problems are all typical injuries for dancers. But not many dancers complain of cuts on a regular basis — particularly not near one’s face. Nonetheless, Amy Zhang’s ’10 ear was cut during a dance rehearsal – the result of an oversized sword whirling above her head in a Chinese folkloric dance performance. Though there are definitely risks involved in sword dancing and the other types of dance she practices every week, Chinese folkloric dance is a release and a thrill more than anything, Zhang said.

Zhang began to take Chinese folkloric dance classes at Shin Dance Academy in Temple City when she was 10 years old. Her parents simply recommended that she try it — and Zhang says she fell in love.

“I love performing — it’s just the best thing,” Zhang said. “I also love learning all of the new and unique styles.”

Chinese folkloric dance involves props like ribbons, swords and long sleeves. With the sword dances, one’s hands must be held a certain way throughout the entire piece, and in ribbon combinations, the ribbons used are typically the length of a room.

“You definitely get tangled a lot when you practice,” Zhang said.

Zhang spends seven hours every Sunday practicing Chinese Folkloric Dance, and performances occur once a month. Her company, the Shin Dance Company, consists of 20 people and required an audition to be accepted. After many classes, Zhang had to choreograph a solo and perform it – that solo is the only piece she’s ever choreographed.

“Our teachers choreograph everything,” Zhang said. “Pieces vary from featuring groups to soloists.”

Zhang said that some of the dances represent minority groups in China and express their heritage and cultural traditions. One of Zhang’s teachers is famous for her performances of the peacock dance in China — there are also dances about beautiful dragons and dances that demonstrate watering gardens. Peacock dance performers don feathers and decorated plates with large eyes painted on them, while dragon dancers pile on red and orange scales.

Zhang’s instructors teach more than just movement; Zhang said that they teach all classes about Chinese history.

“It definitely makes me appreciate my culture more,” she said. “The more styles of dance you practice, the easier other types become.”

Zhang’s experience with jazz and ballet classes has given her a strong foundation for Chinese folkloric dance.

While dancing for so many hours can be difficult to balance with schoolwork, Zhang treats dance classes like a break from her normal routine. Plus, she says, dancing feels natural and relaxing to her.

“When I speak in public or do something similar, I get nervous,” Zhang said. “But when I perform, I don’t get nervous at all.”

Flexibility is a large element of this type of dance — and Zhang’s least favorite part, she said.

“There’s a lot of gymnastics involved: jumping, turning, aerials,” she said. “And there are no mats, so if you fall, it hurts.”

Another potential hazard accompanies this form of dance — the sword Zhang weilds is in fact a real sword, though it is not very sharp, she said. Once Zhang cut her ear with her sword because it was too long for her. Her teacher was able to cut the sword to a length that was easier to maneuver.

Each year the Shin Dance Academy performs a Chinese New Year show at the Kodak Theatre. This year, Zhang performed in a Yellow River dance that she had to audition for.

Zhang is a member of the Advanced Dance I class at Harvard-Westlake, and performed a sword dance the most recent showcase.

Upper school dance teacher Cyndy Winter appreciates the extra dimension that Zhang’s cultural dance adds to her movement vocabulary and to each performance of which she is a part.

“It’s lovely to have students who study different forms of dance because it enriches us all, and brings in interesting perspectives on movement and choreography,” she said.

Zhang utilized her talents to portray an “exotic” circus act in Advanced Dance I’s circus-themed performance for disabled adults.

“Dance makes me feel connected to my culture, gives me a release, and I love performing,” she said. “I want to keep dancing forever.”