Savoring Chinese Dance

Alison Savoring Chinese Dance3
My favorite swimming instructor and
beloved rainbow swimsuit.

I stepped into my first dance classroom when I was five. I vaguely recall skipping across the room, waving around purple ribbons strung onto a chopstick. Obviously, I must have been the teacher’s pet, because all the other little girls were required to put on pink leotards and tutus, whereas I was permitted to wear my favorite rainbow swimsuit.

Four years later, Mom signed me up for dance classes. A mishmash of Chinese ethnic dance, folk dance, ballet, and tumbling was thrown at me. I didn’t learn anything comprehensively, but that didn’t bother me at all. A pair of dance shoes and some music was enough to keep me satisfied.

At the time, my only chance to shine in the spotlight was at local events. My friends and I spent many weekends performing our set of miniature programs at fairs and parades. We would dress up as flute-playing fairies, pretend to slay evil with our collapsible swords, and show off our imperfect cartwheels while the Wong Fei Hong martial arts theme music played in the background. Mom proudly nicknamed us “馬路天使,” or “The Angels in the Streets.”

Alison Savoring Chinese Dance5
A celestial fairy in Hollywood. That's me
with the flute.

Dance soon became my obsession. It was an uncontrollable itch that constantly had to be scratched. I would twiddle with my hand gestures in the school lunch line, prance around the living room when I got sick of solving math problems, and attempt pirouettes in deserted aisles of supermarkets, stopping only if an employee gave me funny looks. I’m surprised I wasn’t diagnosed with some sort of disorder.

Before long, my passion inflated from a simple desire to insatiable gluttony. I begged for more classes, but Mom wouldn’t budge. “She’s just being a typical Asian parent,” I told myself, “saving money so I can go to college one day.”

But what Mom argued was that soaking myself in a medley of dance styles wasn’t going to get me anywhere. She wanted me to learn classical Chinese dance—something I had never seen before—and was determined to find a professional instructor to teach me from the basics.

“Classical Chinese dance,” I thought, “what’s so special about that? It probably looks like Peking Opera… Why does she have to be so fussy?”

Because she’s Mom, and Mom was fussy about everything, especially if it clashed with her old-fashioned way of thinking. A scowl crept onto her face every time she caught me listening to rock music. She possessed an unabashed distaste for instant messaging, video games, and modern art. On top of that, she trampled over all of my campaigns to drop out of Chinese school. Our heated disputes always ended with her well-rehearsed speech on the risks of becoming a “banana”—yellow on the outside, white on the inside—and forgetting I was Chinese. To me, “Chinese” was merely a label describing what type of blood ran through my veins. But she embraced the title for its rich cultural values, and hoped I would grow up with the same morality and dignity as my ancestors. Thus, she always sought opportunities to enlighten me about my heritage, through short stories, proverbs, and the arts.

I remember the first time she took me to watch Shen Yun, and fed me my first spoonful of traditional Chinese dance. The performance had me spellbound for weeks. My greatest ambition was to study at Fei Tian Academy of the Arts, a private school in New York who have selected students tour with the company. There, I could learn classical Chinese dance from world-class instructors, and hopefully get to perform onstage one day.

Fei Tian was reputable for fostering Chinese culture, but Mom knew that sending me there wasn’t going to be easy. The biggest obstacle was my dad, the man who taught me my ABC’s and 123’s. He saw dancing as a waste of time, and was reluctant to part with his thirteen-year-old daughter. On countless nights, I cried myself to sleep as my parents’ voices echoed from downstairs, debating over my future. It seemed impossible to change his thinking. But Mom never backed down. I can never forget how her eyes glistened as she promised that somehow, she would convince my father that it was all worth it.

And I still remember when she asked if I would be homesick, and how I scoffed at the idea, even though deep down I wished she could come with me. This was the mother who never let me shop alone and would go paranoid if she couldn’t see me in the parking lot. And yet, she was ready to send me three thousand miles away from home.

[…to be continued…]

March 10, 2012