For most beginning in dance, the options are pre-defined: Ballet, hip-hop, contemporary, jazz. For Apple Li ’23, choosing Chinese ethnic dance sparked a unique hobby that not only served as an outlet for personal expression, but an opportunity to explore Chinese culture.
Li discovered her love for Chinese ethnic dance at age 11. Originally enrolled in ballet classes to build her confidence and posture, Li searched for a different outlet that fostered personal expression. Most importantly, Li easily learned to interpret stories from Chinese culture.
The increase in confidence that she sought at a young age quickly proved achievable. Li found comfort in the stories she told, and self assurance in the success of her performances.
“When you are able to express yourself through some kind of choreography openly in front of a lot of people, it really does change how you present yourself in daily life,” says Li.
Chinese ethnic dance, also called Chinese folk or traditional dance, encompasses a variety of traditional dance styles passed down through a myriad of cultures in China, where there are over 56 ethnic groups. Dance moves are deeply embedded in the culture, with signature ones including scorpions, tension, and tumbling. The costumes are usually long flowy robes with distinct styles according to the particular culture. And most importantly, there are different cultural stories behind the dance. In many of these stories, dancers are tasked to challenge traditional gender barriers, playing roles ordinarily reserved for men.
One that resonated particularly with Li is the Paper Fan Scholar dance. The story takes place in ancient China when men were expected to be noble and scholarly. Masculinity and chivalry were equally as important. With adapting to these roles of male scholars, Li altered her expressions and composition to imitate curious, mischievous and childish youth. As the story climaxes, the dancers must emulate the masculine power that was revered at the time.
“In that dance you can’t do flowy things you usually find in Chinese traditional dance for a woman,” says Li. “There are boundaries that you can’t cross because you have to keep the authenticity of it.”
Li and her fellow dancers often find difficulty in controlling the scale of their stories. Their acting directly represents historical characters, therefore it is crucial to stay in character. The stories have limits that exist in specific scopes as well as characters.
To really tell the story to the audience, the acting aspect of Chinese ethnic dance is essential. It may be a group dance, but each individual dancer has a unique character to embody, a story to tell. For a full transformation to take place on stage, dancers strive to truly perform their roles with exaggerated movements and committed expressions.
“If you are not invested in the character, it seems weird. But when you’re actually invested in characters, everything makes sense,” says Li.
Li brings her passion for dance to other aspects of her life, including extracurriculars. Last year she co-led a K-pop club with Corniellia Ofori ’23 to experiment with a variety of dance styles, from hip hop to jazz. The club taught different dance choreographies, usually from the K-pop genre, to other students. Li’s enthusiasm and attentiveness in creating a positive learning environment for everyone has not gone unnoticed by her club advisor, Janet Sozio.
“She had an open-minded attitude when it came to teaching and working with others. She was always really energetic and positive. As a teacher, watching her teach, she had a real gift of helping students,” says Sozio. “She could really read a room, to see if classmates were picking things up quickly, or if they needed to change the plan for the day to cater to others’ needs.”
Li’s mentors taught skills from confidence building to beautiful techniques. In the dance culture she jumped into, teachers and classmates fostered individuality and nurtured an environment for Li to grow her interest and self assurance.
“People just let me be myself, and let me fail at some times which really helped,” says Li.
The commitment she gave to dance indirectly gave her the confidence she sought, and prepared her to share this talent and unique devotion with others.
Anyone who interacts with Li can see the enthusiasm and passion she has for the things she loves. Immersing herself in dance of all genres not only left her more educated on Chinese culture, but also helped to improve the lives of others. Whether engaged in conversation with Li, or learning new dance moves, her happiness and positivity is contagious.
“She walks into the room and she’s such a positive presence,” says Sozio. “Not everybody has that gift.”
Li does not plan to dance in college, but she hopes to continue to pursue it as both a hobby and a form of self-expression. Although Li does not dance intensively, she continues to find ways to translate her passion for dance through exploring other interests, like designing choreographies, learning about the culture behind the dance, and listening to music in Chinese for hours on end.
“She’s very hardworking, she’s passionate about what she does, and I think she really cares about people,” says Sozio.
Whether it be teaching classmates or performing on a stage, Li brings her spirit of self-expression to others, which was made possible by choosing to pursue Chinese ethnic dance. By taking this chance, Li has gained this unique passion that inspires both herself and others to transcend convention and discover new interests.
Article written by the WHS Bradford’s Lily Jin ’23 and Paige Ablon ’23.