In 2015, the dancer Melody Qin appeared on the poster for Shen Yun Performing Arts, a globally touring traditional Chinese dance company based in New York. Her image shows the elegant aura and graceful charm of classical Chinese dance, which she’s been practicing since moving to the U.S. from China nine years ago.
“I was excited because my image was on the poster, but I felt stressed as well,” Qin says. “I hoped that I could be a qualified representative, but I felt I was not good enough. It was more like a driving force, urging me to do better.”
Since leaving her family in 2008, Qin has lived in New York, and her classical Chinese dance training has inspired significant changes in her and in her perspective of life.
“I’ve been changed in all aspects,” she says. “What’s more important is to transmit the feeling of the dance. I seemed to understand what dance really is only in the last couple years. I didn’t deeply and thoroughly try to ponder the movement — you have to think what you’re going to represent and how to do it before starting the dance. Then, your body follows your mind.”
Although hard to believe, Qin points out that these emotions she feels acting out a character require as much, or more, energy than the strenuous, acrobatic dance movements.
“I feel myself really releasing what’s inside me. I can express my inner world more smoothly and can interact with the audience,” she says.
This deeper understanding and daring to express herself came most profoundly during last year’s tour, when she was cast to play the White Bone Demon in the Chinese classic Journey to the West.
“The roles I played before were pure like fairies or ladies in ancient times,” she says. “It was the first time I played the role of a demon. I was embarrassed. I couldn’t do the movements and make the expression in my eyes.”
But one day, a dance instructor helped Qin see the role differently, telling her that only by being able to act a villain well can she act positive roles better. With the contrast of evil, one can truly understand what is righteous.
“Wow! It’s true!” Qin thought, who then began recalling the Monkey King TV series and cartoons she watched in childhood, pondering the essence and look of the White Bone Demon. “I really opened myself,” she says, revealing that this villainous character truly taught her how to act, rather than simply doing physical movements.
As Qin’s experience and skill grew on stage, so too increased her responsibilities. With her own personal maturity and deeper understanding of complex characters, she naturally mentored the other new dancers, stepping in as an assistant instructor and, ultimately, a role model.
“The dancers in our company live and rehearse together every day, so we have to pay attention to others in both dance and daily life,” Qin says. “Sometimes I will tell newcomers that they can’t always do whatever they want to do. This attitude will directly influence Shen Yun’s performance. Our dance pieces are primarily group dances, and our movements should be unified, which isn’t only a result of training and practicing all day. It’s because all dancers pay attention to each other, and they can naturally echo and interact with others spontaneously on stage. It’s a daily habit.”
That sensitivity to her fellow dancers also helps Qin better understand the characters she portrays.
“I’m often very focused on the state of our members, so I can detect something wrong with them just from their slight expressions. I can feel when another dancer is having difficulties or is in a bad mood, for example,” Qin says. “Having noticed many small expressive details, I’m much more inspired when acting my own roles. Sometimes it’s an insignificant movement that reveals the character’s mental condition to the audience, sometimes having a better effect than dancing for two minutes.”
Qin found teaching was equally an insightful way to grow and help her own craft while helping the other dancers.
“I feel I learn from teaching more than what I teach others,” Qin says. “I have to prepare lessons in advance and study movements I learned a long time ago. Sometimes I see students do a movement strangely, but I didn’t know where the problem is, so I have to ponder it again and again after class,” thus improving her own technique in the process.
Qin’s role as a senior member also pushes her to excel with her own skill. Only by challenging herself to master highly demanding techniques and tumbling will she inspire the younger dancers, and, of course, consequently the audience watching.
What is hard for audience members to believe is that Qin’s journey with Chinese classical dance only began once she left China.
“After the Cultural Revolution, many traditions were lost,” says the lead dancer. “Now people in China only pursue money, fame, and profit. Few people think how to create classical, pure and beautiful things. Classical Chinese dance is an art that completely reveals a dancer’s inner world, so if the dancer’s morality can’t reach the moral standard of “benevolence, justice, courtesy, wisdom, and honesty” imbedded in traditional Chinese culture, it’s impossible for the dancer to represent classical Chinese dance.”
With that honour has come tremendous joy. Sometimes she even feels empty if she can’t practice dance on vacation.
“I feel so lucky that I came to Shen Yun, where I can understand how magnificent the 5,000 years of Chinese civilization truly is. I will always go on dancing if circumstances allow me,” she says. “Every year, we will try new skills and choreography, always exploring new things, bit by bit, reviving the lost traditional Chinese culture. It’s our mission and this sense of responsibility that drives me to keep dancing, letting audiences around the world experience the beauty of classical Chinese dance and traditional culture.”
Chinese Text by Cherry Chen Translated by David Lee