New Generation of Dancers Recover Chinese Culture

By Catherine Yang
Catherine Yang
Catherine Yang
September 5, 2021 Updated: September 9, 2021

Every time Shen Yun Performing Arts dancer Marilyn Yang takes to the stage, she feels a sense of responsibility. On Sept. 4 in New York where she performed solo for the NTD International Classical Chinese Dance semifinals, it was the same.

“As an artist you have a responsibility for what you’re expressing,” she said. “There’s an audience here today, and they’re here to learn about this lost art form.”

In addition to classical Chinese dance, Shen Yun has pioneered the use of “shen dai shou,” an ancient philosophy of movement, by incorporating it into its dance fundamentals and pedagogy. This method was a new requirement the judges were looking for in the classical Chinese dance competition this year, which ironically must take place outside of China, because this traditional culture can no longer be found in China under communist rule.

“All of our training is to bring awareness to this lost art form,” Yang said.

Of the “shen dai shou” method, Yang said, “There is so much to it. What so special about it is it’s a lost art,” she said. It was passed down master-to-apprentice over the ages in ancient China, but much was lost over time and with the Cultural Revolution cutting off China’s ties to its culture and past.

“You have to change the way you danced before,” Yang explained. Rather than using your hands, your arms, or even your shoulders, the point of force begins from the center of the body, driving the rest of the upper body into motion. “It not only makes your moves bigger, more expressive, it helped with techniques. Jumping, spinning—it all feels lighter, more together, and you’re faster.”

For dancers, obtaining longer lines and bigger movements on stage means delivering their message with more clarity. Classical Chinese dance is an expressive form, well suited to storytelling, and has a defining factor of having inner feelings drive one’s motions.

“With dance you express your emotions, and it all comes from here, starting from this one small point [in the center of your body]”—essentially, your heart. “When you express from here, everything is 10 times more expressive.”

For Yang, the multi-fold power of expression is even more reason to be aware of an artist’s responsibly.

“Confucius talked about how art can uplift a society. It also reflects what a society is like,” she said.

For her, dance can’t be about venting an individual’s own emotions whatever they are, not when it can serve a much higher purpose.

In traditional Chinese culture, for example, “art is divinely inspired,” she said. “Gods gave humans civilization, and there is a standard for what is art and beauty—it’s meant to represent something divinely inspired.”

“It’s an honor to be taught this art form,” she said. “It’s very special, because we’re bringing it back.”

The finals will be livestreamed here.


Final: 1 p.m.–6 p.m. ET
Special Program on Classical Chinese Dance: 6 p.m.–7 p.m. ET
Technical Showcase and Awards Ceremony: 7 p.m.–7:45 p.m. ET

NTD contributed to this report.