Dancing to China and Back

In Washington, DC, a dance teacher collaborates with a language teacher to create a cultural exchange program of a lifetime.

High school students from Beijing and Washington, DC, share a traditional Chinese fan dance.

In the Beijing High School No. 9 dance studio, students from the National Cathedral School in Washington, DC, and their Chinese counterparts line up for a first lesson together. On one side of the room, the Chinese dancers in leotards and tights warm up with splits and over-the-ear stretches. On the other side, the American teenagers in T-shirts and leggings watch with wary admiration: What will it be like to dance together?

But as soon as the lesson in Chinese traditional fan dancing begins, the Americans’ apprehension quickly dissolves. The students laugh together and help each other, movement transcending the barriers of language. “I was amazed how much we could communicate without words,” says NCS student Vanessa Moore. “In learning their dances, I really felt I was stretching, but I think the Chinese dancers did, too, when it was our turn to teach.”

This collaboration took place in March 2013, thanks to the efforts of NCS Dance Program director Vladimir Angelov and Chinese language teacher Ted Xu to initiate a dance and language exchange with China. Cultural programs like this help students to broaden their horizons and become more versatile dancers.

“Instead of a performing arts academy to partner with, we looked for a school similar to ours,” says Angelov. “We found that Beijing High School No. 9 had a strong dance program. The school’s main focus is on academics, yet their dance program is developed with high standards, like ours. About 100 girls and 10 to 15 boys participate annually.”

It took nearly two years to work out details before 10 girls and 5 boys, with teachers and mothers as chaperones, boarded the 14-hour flight to Beijing. On the group’s first day there, 12 U.S. and 28 Chinese dance students came together to take four half-hour dance classes, back-to-back, two given by NCS teachers and two by Chinese teachers.

After the fan dance, NCS dance teacher Ingrid Zimmer taught Isadora Duncan technique, followed by a traditional dance from Mongolia, and then Angelov taught improvisational modern dance. Unique for the Americans was dancing with fans, drums, ribbons and spears, props common to Chinese dance. NCS Chinese teacher Rae Weeks translated the Chinese dance teachers’ verbal instructions while dancing them at the same time. On the second day, NCS girls taught the Chinese students hip-hop and step moves. 

The high point of the exchange was a joint gala evening held in a local theater under the flags of the U.S. and China. Both dance groups showcased their talents and a sample of their signature dance genres. NCS students presented lyrical, hip hop, tap and American classical modern dance. Beijing No. 9’s Golden Seal dance company performed traditional Mongolian modern dance. At the curtain call, dancers from both countries hugged each other to the applause of local media and officials in the audience.

When not dancing, the Americans toured sights of China’s past: the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. They spent a day at the Gucheng School, where they witnessed student choral and musical performances, and visited residential areas, ate in a local home, tried their hand at making dumplings and attended Chinese acrobat and kung fu performances.

“I have learned not to believe everything you see on TV,” said one student. “I honestly thought China had nothing but factories and everyone was so strict.” But “the hospitality of the students at the school and just people in general” contradicted this. The cultural exchange also gave them a new perspective on the U.S. “Everything in the States seems easier now. I am more appreciative of what we have by being a democratic country.”

A year later, Beijing students visited NCS for a reciprocal experience, taking classes from NCS teachers, touring Washington, DC, and performing on the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage. And when Angelov and Xu prepared a new exchange with China and also Macau and Hong Kong in March 2015, they included three NCS students from the inaugural trip to help guide the younger dancers.

Though this particular program was organized by faculty in a private high school, there are opportunities for teachers in other kinds of schools to conduct similar exchanges, with the support of school administrators and parents. Typically, the Americans raise money to visit a Chinese host school that might cover local travel and lodging. A New York City–based teacher/consultant from Wuhan, China, Ling Tang offers programs that prepare U.S. K–12 students to study in China or merely to experience its culture. “Classes are offered almost entirely in Chinese,” she says. “Through dance, students can understand the concept of collectivism/individualism, how Chinese dance is gender-oriented and how movements are derived from diverse living environments.” DT

Judith Lynne Hanna’s new book is Dancing to Learn: The Brain’s Cognition, Emotion, and Movement (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015).

Photos courtesy of National Cathedral School

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