It’s 10 p.m. and for Las Vegas, the night is just getting started. But Karina Fu, one of Shen Yun Performing Arts’ dancers, just gave her heart and soul for two hours at the Smith Center in a performance that brought tears to my eyes. Looking around the audience, I wasn’t alone.
Karina sits patiently in the green room, poised, gently turning the pages of her novel. I rush in and she smiles graciously, floating up from her seat.
After introductions, I ask her what she’s reading. She tells me Romance of Three Kingdoms, one of China’s all-time most beloved ancient novels. It’s one of her favourites. That comes as no surprise since she emanates the noble presence I would expect from a Chinese classic. I assume she’s been groomed in classical culture her whole life, but she tells me otherwise.
“Teachers in China didn’t encourage us to read except from textbooks,” she says, and explains that she didn’t begin learning about the lifestyle and culture of ancient China until she left the country.
Karina is from Northeast China, and when she was in elementary school, her parents immigrated to the U.S. Worried about upsetting their daughter, they told Karina they were just going on a summer vacation. But once abroad, her parents told her she wasn’t returning home,
a hard reality to swallow. Her friends were back in China, and she didn’t speak a word of English, making it impossible to meet new kids and to understand her teachers in class. Frustrated and lonely, she resented her parents’ decision. Until one day, a visit from her parents’ friend changed her life.
The family friend showed Karina Shen Yun Performing Arts’ website. Karina had seen a Shen Yun DVD back home, but the live performances are banned in China due to their focus on traditional culture.
Karina was captivated by the videos describing how hard the artists practice classical Chinese dance and how they personally improve their hearts and minds through their art. “Seeing that they perform more than 100 performances around the world and are praised by so many people, I really worshiped them. I wanted to be like them.”
She was 12 years old and was now enamoured by the dream of becoming a Shen Yun dancer, but she had no prior dance instruction and didn’t meet the height requirement. Even though she feared that she might fail, she applied to the Fei Tian Academy of the Arts in New York, a feeder school for the globally-touring Shen Yun troupes.
Fortunately, the interviewers thought she would continue to grow, so they enrolled her. She was so thrilled she left without even telling her schoolmates goodbye.
It was the first time she had ever been apart from her parents, away from home, and living with people her own age. “I’m the only child at home,” she recalled. “I couldn’t bear hardship and had a hot temper. I was afraid of pain when practicing dance, and I didn’t like listening to others’ opinions even if I made mistakes.”
Karina learned firsthand the meaning of “one minute on stage needs ten years of practice off stage.” She gradually adapted to the physical and emotional demands of five hours per day of dance classes plus rehearsals and individual practice sessions at night.
But the tumbling and acrobatic movements tested the limits of her body and will.
“At the beginning, though I had relatively good flexibility, I lacked strength. As a result, I could not do the flipping and tumbling well. The more I fell, the less confident I was. I felt upset and wanted to lash out at people.”
Karina cringes as she recalls how the front flip, in particular, plagued her. As with any type of tumbling, confidence plays a huge factor. The front flip requires springy strength thrown with full confidence, confidence that she wouldn’t land on her head. But with each failed attempt, she grew more and more timid.
Then, a senior student offered a helping hand. “She told me to practice the jumping back kicks to overcome my weakness.” At first, Karina rejected the advice but soon realized that to become an excellent dancer, she had to conquer her shortcomings.
“So I made a plan to practice every day. About two or three weeks later, I felt my legs had more strength.” As she chipped away at the problem, bit by bit, her confidence grew alongside her physical strength. Six months later, she had perfected the flip.
Despite the usefulness of their advice, Karina still couldn’t stomach it when her classmates pointed out her flaws. She soon learned that the challenges of classical dance were not simply external.
In 2014, when Karina was a new addition to the touring company, something happened on stage that thrust her problem into the spotlight in the worst way: Karina stumbled in the middle of one of the dances to the surprise of thousands of audience members.
“I was upset and cried,” she laments. “But the veteran dancers comforted me and helped me find the core problem. I saw that my unwillingness to accept feedback or wholeheartedly correct my
problems accumulated over a long time and eventually broke out on stage.”
She began to see life differently at that point. “I had to be responsible to the audience. I had to become more strong and mature to be able to accept criticism.” Her parents’ wisdom also echoed inside her: “If you throw a stone in a basin, a lot of water will splash out. If you throw a stone in the sea, it won’t cause even a single wave.” She reflects, “Only by expanding your endurance can you maintain a peaceful state of mind when adverse things happen around you.”
In traditional Chinese dance, the symbiosis of inner cultivation of character with the outward expression of dance is known as “bearing.” Karina explains, “The classical Chinese dancers’ movements are motivated by their inner feelings. If we don’t know the inner world of the characters in our dance, we can’t create the feelings in our movements. Then the audience can’t feel the culture or bearing.”
Karina reminisces of the first time she saw Shen Yun live, before her own training began. “It gave me a sacred feeling.”
Touching the audience’s hearts in the same way is what motivates Karina today. She dives wholeheartedly into her study of classical culture and thought, living and breathing it, so that her movements originate from an authentic part of her.
She glances down at her novel, Romance of Three Kingdoms. I see now that her interest does not simply lie in learning about classical culture. Her truest desire is to share it.