MIDDLETOWN, N.Y.—At the beginning of each dance class, the students bow to their teachers. At the end of each class they do the same, capping off the session with respect to the tradition of the art form, to the piano accompanist, and to the teacher.
In ballet, this is called révérence, a longstanding tradition that may or may not be adhered to depending on the teacher. But what’s unique at Fei Tian College Middletown is that these dance students all take classical Chinese dance courses alongside their ballet studies, and they begin and end each of these classes this same way.
“In today’s world, you need to know both cultures, Eastern and Western,” said Yung Yung Tsuai, chair of the dance department at Fei Tian College Middletown. “They learn it through the dance. They’re both learning about the traditions and about respect.”
“I firmly believe any art, especially the art of dance, is to teach people about life,” Tsuai added.
Classical Chinese dance is not nearly as well-known in the West as ballet is. Even in the East, it’s now just seeing a re-emergence of interest and performance, after years of cultural suppression in China, under the communist regime, which stamped out countless traditions and practices.
But in speaking to the dance students and professors, it becomes clear that perhaps ballet is a way for the newcomer to understand not just classical Chinese dance but also the traditional Chinese culture that backs it.
“I think when it comes to good classical arts, there are a lot of similar standards to what makes the art good,” said classical Chinese dancer Mingye Liu.
Most of us know that ballet is rooted in technique, technique, technique. Dancers train rigorously so that they have the foundation of form and technique, which they strive to perfect, in order to express artistry, beauty, story, and feeling.
Every other classical discipline is the same.
“Classical Chinese dance is a very systematic art form,” said Alison Chen, a classical Chinese dance teacher. When students come to her class, they work on strengthening their fundamentals before they can move on to the more difficult movement combinations, which includes “shen yun” (what the teachers call bearing or the spirit of classical Chinese dance), and a whole body of movements specific to this art form.
This “bearing” is the inner spirit, the absolute heart of classical Chinese dance, Liu explained. At first, it sounds akin to acting. But then the teachers demonstrate not just specific movements, but specific ways of connecting movements that then form endless different combinations of movement the artist can then use to portray the character or subject’s inner thoughts. The movements form an aesthetic, formal language that then accompanies bearing.
So as students learn these movements and start to grasp the style, they are at the same time coming to understand the 5,000-year civilization from which the dance emerged. They understand the cultural mannerisms, the history, the stories, and how to relate to others in this language. The art becomes the tangible expression of the culture’s ideas of excellence.
The dance teachers all emphasized the importance of an inner life in terms of both discipline and artistry.
This is because the most excellent artists have a vision, a mission, dedication, an understanding of life, and the ability to both educate and inspire, Tsuai said. “The mediocre artist is merely self-indulgent.”
This sort of elevated educational philosophy permeates the college. Tsuai says character is a foremost consideration in how she staffs the department.
Newly established, Fei Tian College Middletown now offers four degree programs: Bachelor of Science in Data Science, Bachelor of Science in Biomedical Science, Bachelor of Fine Arts in Dance, and Master of Fine Arts in Dance. The college aims to give students studying hard sciences exposure to the classical arts, and vice versa.
Fei Tian College’s Middletown campus dance students and teachers will give performances in New York City at the Martha Graham Dance Studio at 55 Bethune St. 11th floor, on Dec. 1 at 7 p.m. and Dec. 2 at 3 p.m.