The first thing that captivated Elsie Shi about classical Chinese dance was the flips—the way dancers looked as if they were flying, the way she felt tumbling through the air. She would try to prolong the feat as long as possible, staying in the air as long as possible, before touching the ground again.
“Back then, I wanted to learn gymnastics, but I was too old for that,” Shi said in an interview. At around age 10, Shi might have been too old to start gymnastics, but her school had an extracurricular classical Chinese dance program she could join. And that led to the discovery of what she now views as a mission.
Since 2013, Shi has been dancing in practicum with Shen Yun Performing Arts, the classical Chinese dance company that has become a worldwide phenomenon. Shen Yun has revitalized the once little-known art of classical Chinese dance, a form with millennia of history in its very bones, and has become the standard bearer globally for the artistic caliber of the dance. From an early age, Shi took on classical Chinese dance as a hobby, and that soon became an aspiration, before realizing her dream and joining the top classical Chinese dance company in the world. Now an award-winning artist, taking home the Gold Award in the 2016 NTD International Classical Chinese Dance Competition, Shi wants to use her gift to give back.
“I want to bring the beautiful and the very grand 5,000 years of Chinese history, and classical Chinese dance—the unique side of this dance form and the beauty behind it—I want to express this to the audience,” Shi said.
Through her dance performances, she realized that the dance form wasn’t just technical brilliance and gravity-defying flips—that was merely the vehicle to express inner meaning—and that classical Chinese dance is all about inner meaning.
“It’s really different from other dance forms,” Shi said. “You really feel the difference.”
Once you grasp that unique feeling of classical Chinese dance, she explained, you start to understand it. The form itself is the culmination of 5,000 years of civilization, and fully capable of expressing the traditional culture and values of this ancient civilization.
It’s a famously expressive form, making it perfect for storytelling. A typical Shen Yun program includes several storytelling dances, sharing myths and legends from Chinese history, as well as the occasional modern-day tale.
To give an example of the multilayered expression the dance is capable of, Shi described a role she took on a few years ago. In a vignette taken from an episode of the adventure “Journey to the West,” a merry band of travelers happen upon a queendom. Shi’s character was the queen—which called for noble bearing and a refined, elegant countenance—who during the course of the story gets possessed by a scorpion’s spirit.
“And then it’s a completely different feeling. There are similar movements, but you can’t do them the usual way. Instead, it’s very crazy and vicious,” Shi said. Then, she had to switch back from the scorpion to the majestic queen. The effect had to be instantly clear to the audience; to accomplish the feat she “needed to be very clearheaded,” she said.
The focus on clarity and attention to detail is in the very culture of the company that Shi is part of. All of the artists, she said, are focused on improving every day, every moment.
Truth Through Art
Shi says that her first encounter with Shen Yun was an interesting one. Someone had come to her place of study in Taiwan to give a presentation about classical Chinese dance and Shen Yun. And through that, Shi and her mother (a teacher at Shi’s place of study at the time) learned about a study center in Taiwan that focused on the arts with a specialization in classical Chinese dance.
During that first encounter, Shi also learned about Falun Gong.
It’s a spiritual practice that includes self-cultivation and following the principles of truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance, as well as offering meditation exercises. People around the world today know about the practice from hearing news that it has been persecuted by the communist regime in China since 1999. Many of the artists with Shen Yun practice Falun Gong themselves, and there is sometimes a storytelling dance set in modern-day China that touches on the persecution.
For Shi, art is a precious vehicle for sharing the truth with a wide audience, and she is grateful that she can lend her gift to give voice to this issue. Her feeling grew even stronger once she’d learned that some of the audience members came from China, where such truthful information is censored. No matter where she goes around the world, and what sort of audience is in the theater, the reception has always been warm.
“I am very honored, so much that it’s hard to express,” Shi said. This, and expressing the beauty of classical Chinese dance, are the most important things to Shi as a Shen Yun dancer.
Between the Stage and the Audience
Being part of the company is unlike anything else, Shi said. Where else do you get to tour around the entire globe every season, bringing something so beautiful to millions?
“You get to see so many different cultures, and it’s very different, seeing every country and seeing different peoples,” Shi said. The cultures can be very different, she explained. Sometimes people clap and cheer when something especially dazzling happens on stage. Sometimes it’s considered rude to do so, but the audiences are still ever warm and excited. She is always grateful to hear how inspired and uplifted the audience members are, and it’s become clear that Shen Yun is much more than entertainment.
“It’s a cultural learning event as well,” Shi said. Just as she learns about new cultures in every new city she visits, the audiences are getting acquainted with traditional Chinese culture, the beauty of classical Chinese dance, and the truth about China’s past and present.
And if seeing the beautiful dances and thrilling flips makes you want to try your hand at learning it, just as Shi once did, Shi wholeheartedly encourages the effort. “Why not give it a try!” she said.