Rao Deru grew up in America, is an elite performer of a millennia-old dance tradition, and takes criticism like a champ.
After spending an hour with Rao Deru, you will wish that you too were a young Chinese woman who danced in the classical style. The conclusion is irresistible.
When dancing, Rao says, “You feel like a whole different person. You feel very graceful, but different.”
She struggles to explain the heart of the mystery. “It’s very deep, yet indescribable.”
She pauses for a moment when asked to dig deeper, to pinpoint exactly what it feels like to do classical Chinese dance.
“It’s a very Chinese feeling.”
Rao, who arrived in the United States from China at the age of nine, dances with Shen Yun Performing Arts, the most well-known and successful classical Chinese dance company in the world. Its campus is nestled in the forests of New York state at the base of the Catskill mountains.
She has been with the company for years, fulfilling a wish that first seized her after she saw Shen Yun perform on stage in Washington, D.C. when she was 12. Rao remembers thinking, “The world isn’t the way it seems right now.” The mundaneness of the world, the sense that there is nothing more to life than what we experience daily, temporarily vanished. The veil was lifted, revealing a majesty that she wanted to be part of. In the dancers’ movements, she saw hope.
Deep thoughts for an elementary school student. But years later, after she completed her training and finally joined Shen Yun through its highly competitive auditioning process, her sense of the magic, majesty, and mystery of Chinese classical dance has not abated in the least. Now she is the one imparting hope.
Classical Chinese dance is a profound and intensive discipline, requiring many years of training. It consists of thousands of combinations of postures, movements, jumps, spins, and tumbles, and was passed down for thousands of years in China, performed inside the imperial palace and during ancient theatre and opera.
One of Rao’s favourite postures is the “Zi Jin Guan,” often referred to in English as a back leg jump. In Chinese, the characters mean “purple golden crown.” It’s like doing the splits, backwards, while standing. From standing, one leg is lifted (or kicked) behind, all the way, until it comes up to the back of the dancer’s head. The back of the head nearly touches the upper thigh. Having pulled the leg up towards the sky, one holds the posture.
It requires enormous back flexibility, a great deal of strength and muscle, and steady balance. It’s usually done at the end or beginning of a dance. “It’s one of those moves that catches the eyes,” Rao says. When holding herself in the Zi Jin Guan posture, Rao says that the undefinable feeling, the one that lies at the heart of her experience of dance, starts welling up in her.
In the thick of a tour, it can be difficult to maintain an unshakable, positive attitude — the key ingredient for spectacular shows. Shen Yun performs either in the afternoon or the evening — or sometimes both. With two performances day after day, the crew can start to get tired. “At the end, you’re like: it’s finally the last performance! And all of a sudden you don’t feel so tense,” Rao said. Then they need to remind each other not to become too relaxed; their standards need to be equally high every time. “Treat your last performance as your first.”
The lesson was learnt well from a recent season in Taiwan, when Shen Yun performed in Taipei, the capital, for six days straight, with two shows every other day. “Everybody was nervous about it. So we had a very positive mindset that ‘Okay, we have to keep going, because it’s a very, very tough challenge.’” With that mental preparation, “it actually went quite well and the time passed by very fast, because we thought we had to keep going.”
Maintaining stamina in such a rigorous tour schedule requires another kind of mental toughness: the ability to take harsh feedback. When someone criticized her at a company meeting while in Australia, Rao was shocked. Rebukes don’t come often for the beautiful, talented, hard-working, intelligent dancer. Although the words were unpleasant, the experience is one of her most cherished because of what it triggered: deep reflection.
“It was good for me, because it allowed me to improve myself to be better. It was very memorable. I changed afterwards.” After that remark, “I was more modest, open to suggestions, more willing to listen to others’ opinions. It actually changed my personality.”
During our conversation, Rao makes references to classical Chinese texts, to Jane Austen (her favourite author), and to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day”). In the final lines of the poem, Shakespeare addresses the permanence of beautiful art. “So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.”
Rao interprets it: “As long as people can breathe and can see, dance will live, and through dance, you will live.”
What does this mean to the audience? “Hope!” Rao bursts out. “You tell them that the world is not going to be over, that there’s always hope. You have to believe in God, in traditional values.” Being moral matters, she explains, because “you have to pay for what you do. You have to work hard for something. You have to never give up.”
Photography by Larry Dai