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One of the first dances I ever performed was a trio with my two best friends: a frivolous, cheerful number with far too many sequins, gauzy handkerchiefs disguising the awkwardness of our skinny arms. Backstage, we trembled in terror at the prospect of presenting ourselves in front of the friends we had so foolishly invited. But it was too late to worry about how embarrassed I felt telling people I did Chinese dance, too late to worry about our distinctly foreign (and undeniably Chinese) music and costumes, and too late to worry about our choreography, the facial expressions and wild gestures that made even us giggle. Because then it was our turn: smiling through our teeth for dear life, we blinked hard in the lights that seemed harsher than before, doing our best not to recoil from the dark mass of whispering grandparents and chattering toddlers.
Somehow, we survived—and we kept coming back for more. For six days a week, [Redacted] Dance Academy was home to dozens of girls like me: Chinese-Americans, otherwise estranged from our heritage, seeking to rediscover it here. On the scarred marley floor, we practiced pliés and tendus, panwan and yueliangmen. And as we learned the languages of movement, we relearned the languages we had taught ourselves to forget.
In that simple studio we breathed in the musky odor of sweat, dust, and exhaustion, and breathed out the scent of camaraderie and shared experience. As we painted on our faces for performances, we recalled all the times tipsy white guys not-so-jokingly asked if we were sisters, while other moms at competitions gushed about our “fascinating” and “exotic” costumes. And we pondered the way the catcalls we received on the street were doubly disarming because, as we were inevitably reminded, we weren’t just girls, we were Asian girls; not just dolls, but China dolls.
My experiences feeling foreign as a minority raised further questions–why, and how, and what it means when we perform the traditional dances of ethnic minorities that Han Chinese had all but exterminated; how our performances of the Tibetan cowgirl or Mongolian bowl dances intersect with disputes that continue to this day. But isn’t it better to uncover and investigate than it is to obscure and ignore? And isn’t it better that we can at least learn, understand, and appreciate the dances of Tibet and the others, even if dissecting their history and politics isn’t nearly as simple?
Dance provided me a community and a context to center these conversations. And over time, dance became a way for me to reconcile the hyphen bridging the ocean between Chinese and American, to somehow take the threads of something long lost and weave them into a cloth more beautiful than before. Distinctive costumes and dozens of ethnic dance styles infused me with an appreciation of the kaleidoscope that is Chinese culture; dance reminded me to find beauty in each toss of the head and flick of the fingers, and to find beauty in myself.
The answers come slowly, but they come all the same. As messy as it can be, the process of figuring out what it means to perform Chinese dance has been for me a vehicle to understanding what it means to be a Chinese woman in America: a dance in itself, to be performed on the stage of American society. I’ve come to realize that no matter the setting, performance is a process, not a product. It’s a journey of exploration, understanding, and self-discovery, and my journey so far has been much more than just learning to move my body. It’s been the understanding that Chinese and American aren’t mutually exclusive; it’s been an awareness of how social location shapes experience. And it’s become a way to move forward: I think I’m ready for this show to begin.
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