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A rebellious tomboy tries traditional Chinese dancing

Would the dance form make me poised and amiable, as my parents hoped?

(Gracia Lam)

I was a 12-year-old American tomboy when my parents forced me into my first Chinese folkloric dance class. They believed a beautiful satin costume and limber body could miraculously dampen my pugnacity and infuse my demeanor with poise. “Sui he, Amy,” they scolded during the car rides home from the dance studio. Roughly translated: “Amiability leads to harmony, Amy.”

The phrase often cued a long lecture on my behavior in dance class, where I had again jostled too forcefully for a front-row position or been overly vehement in striving for a solo. My Chinese elders and relatives parroted my parents. “Sui he,” they chided. I could only clench my fan and slump into my seat.

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“Sui” means to follow and not to lead. Paired with “he,” or harmony, it means to be obliging. But it was not in my nature to be a follower. I was loud and aggressive, an unyielding force powered by my desires. So I steeled myself against a culture that seemed to pressure women to be modest and meek. I expected the same self-effacing attitude to characterize a dance form founded on Chinese values.

But when I entered the studio for the first time, I remember feeling my eyes widen at the explosion of color, sound, and movement. There was nothing meek about these powerful dancers swinging swords and pounding drums. As I walked stiffly across the studio, I glimpsed their strong muscles under the long cuts of rippling ombre silk. The soft fabric seemed to flutter over pure, elastic energy. When my teacher handed me my first fan a few weeks later, I felt my body quiver, like the shiver of a machine after the final cog slips into place.

Though I consistently rebelled against my parents’ lectures after practice, it was in dance class that their lessons finally came alive. As my body adapted to the spirited choreography, my mind adapted to a once-foreign body of knowledge. My teacher decoded every movement for me as our class rotated through various styles, tackling a different regional folk tradition each month. I soon learned that when I raised my fan, I mirrored a Han harvester pulling wheat. When I threw out my sleeve in a cascade of cloth, I emulated the beauty of a moon goddess. When I crossed my legs into first position, I embodied the Chinese values of power and balance.

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But most important, I finally understood that in the dance I was never alone, yet I never led nor trailed behind. Instead, my teacher said, I was a single note in consonance with my fellow dancers and with the history of my culture. We could inspire our audience if, and only if, we moved together in a collective crescendo. “Sui he,” she said. This time she emphasized the “he,” or harmony. That Chinese phrase that my parents so often berated me with no longer implied weakness, but solidarity. It proposed congruity without conformity and audacity without aggression.

A decade of dance has instilled this philosophy into every aspect of my life. I have not lost my identity, that innate propensity to dispense maximal energy in all that I do. But Chinese folkloric dance decoded one of the most significant aspects of my culture. Dancing has taught me that I am both an individual and a member in harmony with a collective, whether that be my dance troupe, my family, or my world.

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My life is not a solo where I dance and twirl alone, but one part in a rotating whole wherein each individual’s energy propels the entire ensemble to spin. In other words, when I or my fellow men and women succeed, I now understand that we progress together.

Amy Aixi Zhang is a writer in Boston. Send comments to connections@globe.com.


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