A Place of Purity

Behind the scenes with a Shen Yun dancer, where simplicity and traditional Chinese values make the atmosphere serene.

Teresa Du was more than 20 pounds overweight when she decided at the age of 13 that she wanted to follow in her big sister’s footsteps to become a classical Chinese dancer. Her determination to overcome challenges and improve herself served her well even before she started her formal dance training; she changed her lifestyle, lost all the excess weight, and was accepted to Fei Tian Academy of the Arts in New York.

Fei Tian specializes in classical Chinese dance and is the training ground for Shen Yun Performing Arts. Shen Yun’s mission is to revive 5,000 years of Chinese culture, and its dancers have learned more than dance moves and techniques — they’ve learned to put into practice in their daily lives the principles of the ancient culture they are helping revive.

Teresa Du’s parents are academics and raised her to be one too, but dancing requires more thought than school subjects do, she says. Classical Chinese dance is rich and intricate, and dancers must consider the effect of their minute movements as well as how best to portray their characters onstage. Photo by Bill Xie

Historically, Chinese culture has been rooted in Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. The music, art, and even the clothing fashions of various dynasties are said to have been divinely imparted to the people.

From Fei Tian to the stage, Shen Yun fosters an environment of purity and mutual support, Du says.

“Here, we try not to use smartphones and computers that much. Usually when we do, it’s dealing with our performance,” she says. “There are no distractions, so you can just focus on dance. It’s really great how pure everyone is here, because everyone is so focused on their dancing.”

You must first empty your cup to fill it with a sweeter tea

She uses an analogy to explain the importance of purifying one’s mind in order to improve one’s dancing. “If you have a tea cup that’s already filled with tea and you add more to it, it will just overflow,” she says. You have to empty it first to fill it anew. Only when you purify your mind and release other thoughts can you fill yourself with what you need to dance well.

The intricacies of classical Chinese dance require much consideration, Du says. “You have to find your inner bearing, develop your flexibility; you have to see which angle your moves look best in, how to execute your moves, how to get into a certain character,” she says.

The best way to learn how to be a great dancer is to clear your mind of distractions, Du says. Photo by Bill Xie

Du has always done well in school and considers herself academic. She feels that “dancing is actually harder than academics, because you have to think of so many things at once. It’s a mental challenge as well as a physical challenge.”

Familial bonds and encouragement

Du was 15 years old when she started at Fei Tian, and her strongest first impression was the sense of being among family. At her old school in Houston, Texas, where she grew up, she had good friends, but at Fei Tian, “It was like all of my classmates became my sisters. I had 14 or 15 sisters.”

Her big sister who had first inspired her to become a dancer tours with one of Shen Yun’s other four companies, but Du nonetheless feels plenty of sisterly love around her.

Onstage, the dancers often whisper to each other, “Jiayou!” This translates literally as “Add oil!” But the idea is along the lines of one person “filling up” another person with good energy and encouragement. When the dancers say “Jiayou” to each other, they are giving each other a boost.

While training is hard, Du says there’s nothing so exhilarating and enjoyable as being onstage in Shen Yun’s energetic and uplifting dances. Photo by Bill Xie
Though Du was young when she moved away from home to study dance, she was not homesick — her classmates at Fei Tian Academy of the Arts became like her sisters. Photo by Bill Xie

Although Du grew up in the United States, her parents — who had moved from Changchun, China, in 1996 — tried to raise her with an appreciation of traditional Chinese culture. As a child, she memorized Tang Dynasty poems and learned to play the guzheng, also known as the Chinese zither, a stringed instrument with a history of more than 2,500 years.

The depth and significance of the poems and songs she learned were lost on her as a child, she says. But she has come to appreciate Chinese culture more through her time with Shen Yun. For example, she says, learning about the principle of yin and yang has enriched her perspective on life.

Once you reach your peak, you have to start going down. Nothing is everlasting; you have to always try hard.

Balancing yin, yang, and handkerchiefs

Yin and yang are the two opposite extremes, yet they are connected and balanced. Du explains that one aspect of this is that, “Once you reach your peak, you have to start going down. Nothing is everlasting; you have to always try hard.” Du thus has a sense of the impermanence of life and the value of continually striving forwards and not resting on one’s laurels.

The 19-year-old has been on tour with Shen Yun for two years now, following two years of training. That training was challenging, but also rewarding, she says.

In some of the dances, the dancers twirl colourful handkerchiefs. Each handkerchief is balanced on the tip of a dancer’s forefinger and spun so quickly it looks like a spinning plate. It is a dazzling move, and also very hard to master.

“We will sometimes just spin both hankies at once 1,000 times to practice,” she says. “If someone can’t find the way to master it, people will help without asking. During tour, when people were having trouble with their hankies, the others would start cheering them on. It’s very touching. You don’t focus on yourself, you focus on the entire group and this person who is in need of help.”

In some Shen Yun dances, the dancers twirl handkerchiefs, which requires great dexterity and balance. (c) Shen Yun Performing Arts
As a child, Du learned about ancient Chinese culture, but she has come to truly appreciate its beauty through her time with Shen Yun. (c) Shen Yun Performing Arts

Being onstage dancing and spinning the handkerchiefs is exhilarating, she says. “It’s so exciting and cute, it feels really energetic and bubbly, so I have a lot of fun. You feel like you’re part of this really exciting crowd.”

Du says that being onstage in general, she feels a profound energy. “I feel like no matter how tired I am, as soon as the music starts and the curtains come up, I feel this excess amount of energy, and I feel adrenaline rushing.”

When the dancers get a standing ovation, Du says, she feels a sense of accomplishment, of having positively impacted the lives of the people in the audience. “It’s an honour for me.”