Taste of Life caught up with Shen Yun dancer Huang Linjie in the midst of a world tour and learned the secret to how she portrays noble ladies’ and goddesses’ graceful femininity.
Growing up, Huang Linjie always considered herself a tomboy and never dreamed that she would one day embody the very essence of femininity as a dancer with the New York-based Shen Yun Performing Arts Company.
Huang recently sat down with Taste of Life for a conversation about dance and some of the turning points in her life. She laughed as she described growing up without ever viewing herself as a girl, playing team sports and learning from her brothers.
But all of that changed when a passion for dance awoke in her teenage heart.
A new direction
Huang was 15 years old when Shen Yun Performing Arts came to Taiwan for the first time in 2007. She had gone to see the show with her family. Afterwards, her father asked her if she would be interested in learning dance. Still glowing with the energy of the show, Huang beamed at the thought and said “yes” without hesitation.
Before she knew it, she was filling out an application to attend Fei Tian Academy of the Arts in New York, dubbed the “Juilliard” school of classical Chinese dance, which trains most of Shen Yun’s dancers. When the school finally called back, she was ecstatic. However, when they requested her to attend an interview and audition, her excitement quickly turned into self-doubt and anxiety.
Realizing her strengths
She walked into the interview still not knowing what to expect, how well she could do, or how to respond to the scrutiny. As the interview transitioned into the audition, however, Huang’s nervousness subsided, and she started to realize just how strong she was.
Because she had always played with her brothers and excelled in sports, Huang was in peak physical fitness. She leapt with power and control, her movements were coordinated, and her limbs stretched far. In Chinese dance, the tumbling techniques provide some of the most memorable moments for the audience, but the strength and endurance they require is beyond the ability of most teenagers.
Huang was a natural, though, and Fei Tian welcomed her into their elite program.
Rites of passage
She had passed the physical test, but a much more difficult test awaited. “When I was watching Shen Yun, what I loved the most were the male dances. Their movements are dynamic, uplifting, and the music is delightful,” Huang said. Graceful Qing Dynasty princesses, the glorious women of the Tang Dynasty, or a goddess floating in clouds didn’t impress her quite the same way.
“When I came here, I found that as a girl, I had to learn the female dances,” she said as she laughed and shrugged. The next test was not just to learn dance techniques, but to learn how to carry herself as a lady.
She started with the most basic movements — hand and finger gestures — but Huang says she was just blindly following other dancers without really knowing what she was doing. It made her dances look stiff, and the choreographers passed her over while selecting performers for their new programs.
One day, a classmate asked, “Since you’re not in any programs, why do you still come here?” The earnest question stayed with her and spurred her to change herself and make a leap in her career.
No holding back
“I learned the dance movements very slowly. After I took a good look at what was really going on for me, I realized I was afraid to lose face by dancing poorly. It led me to become overly cautious about small things.” As soon as she became aware of her root fear, she let go of it.
“I stopped thinking about losing face, and instead I focused on the overall feelings of the teacher’s movements.” It was as if a lock had been broken open. Her movements became emotive and beautiful, and soon she was selected to join one of Shen Yun’s touring groups.
Self-examination and personal growth are rites of passage for all dancers. Huang says that performing with the world’s premier classical Chinese dance company is not just about mastering skills; it requires an inner transformation — adopting the right attitude and transcending all notions, anxiety and fears.
Huang says that the essence of classical Chinese dance is “bearing,” the nuanced carriage of a performer as he or she expresses the thoughts and feelings of a character through movement.
Bearing is a fundamental aspect of classical Chinese dance and it comes from China’s 5,000-year-old history, says Huang. When she connected with this facet of traditional culture, she recognized the masculinity in her previous demeanor and tapped into the femininity she had always neglected.
“To represent ancient Chinese women onstage, I have to truly understand the virtues they lived by and their gentle, respectful and kindhearted manner.” Huang’s transformation is still unfolding but one thing’s for sure: the tomboy is gone. Now she immerses herself in the manners and bearing of Chinese princesses and goddesses and has come to deeply appreciate their traits. She carries herself both onstage and off as a graceful woman of noble upbringing.
Huang has been touring with Shen Yun Performing Arts for six consecutive years, but this past season was the first time she had the chance to perform in Taiwan, her birthplace.
“After my father saw me on the stage, he said, ‘I have finally found a daughter!’”
Photography by Larry Dai.