Our Roving Reporter Follows Dancers As They Perform Throughout China
Midway through a 14-hour flight to Beijing, 17-year-old Jaclyn “Jax” Sirchia slumped on the ground of the plane and exclaimed, “I went crazy three hours ago.” The long flight was the first of many tests of patience for Jax and her fellow dancers, who, in spite of a few hesitations about the food and bathrooms (which were often little more than holes in the ground) came away from the experience with a deeper cultural awareness.
Team U.S.A., comprising 51 dancers and an entourage totaling more than 100 people, performed at the annual Beijing International Cultural Tourism Festival, a week-long celebration preceding China’s National Day on October 1. Each day began with a 6 am wakeup call, and on many days the group didn’t see their hotel rooms again until 10 pm. Long bus rides brought them to incredible sites, including the Great Wall and Tiananmen Square in Beijing, old Yuci City in Jinzhong (an eight-hour ride away) and the ancient town of Pingyao. Despite sitting in traffic jams and hoofing through immense tourist destinations, Team U.S.A. managed to perform at least one time each day, if not more, to large adoring crowds. The dancers were often gawked at, photographed and fawned over like celebrities, making it all seem surreal.
The trip was coordinated by Terry Wang, president of the Fairfax, VA–based New World Bilingual Institute, whose task was to select performers to represent the U.S. in the festival. She enlisted On Stage America director Terry Hazel to pick competition dancers for this year’s Olympic-themed event. Hazel chose 13 studios, and of those, seven accepted the invitation. Each studio director then selected a handful of top dancers to join Team U.S.A.
The participating studios gathered at On Stage America’s Nationals in Cape May, NJ, in July to learn one of five routines they would perform in China. Dance USA director Michelle Ferraro choreographed the largest group number, a patriotic danceincorporating jazz and hip hop. The rehearsal was the first time she met the other students. “I [had] never worked with any of them before, so it was like, ‘Okay, who can do this, who can do that,’” she says. “And you know what? They learned that patriotic piece in three days.”
Hazel split up the 51 dancers into two groups to learn the four other routines: A Fosse-inspired dance and a lyrical number set to “Proud to Be an American” (both also choreographed by Ferraro), along with a lyrical to “Impossible Dream” and a tap dance to “Willamania” (both choreographed by C & C co-director Carrie Kaub Smith and assisted by teacher Erin Vitalos). After a couple of rehearsals post-Nationals, the studios met one last time the weekend of September 17 for a final group practice before the big trip.
The dancers arrived in Beijing on September 22, having lost an entire day to travel and exhausted from the 12-hour time difference. Initially, the group had a hard time adjusting to their new surroundings. “It was a big culture shock,” says Jazz Unlimited teacher and performer Keith Ocampo. “[There] was just a little insecurity, because you don’t know the language and it’s hard to communicate, so you feel awkward and out of place.” Dancers didn’t have too much time to dwell on their apprehension, though; they were off to rehearse and sightsee the next morning.
On September 24, Team U.S.A. headed to downtown Beijing to perform, along with groups representing 39 other countries, in an extravagant parade. The streets were lined with locals, city and military officials and media crews, all pressing in to see the spectacle. When the dancers performed their patriotic number, many of their mothers in the stands stood up, cried and hugged one another. Hazel later told the group, “You did it without a hitch, without a flaw. I had goosebumps watching you. You just made us so proud. You made your country proud.” After the performance, they proceeded down the street for another half mile, and the crowd went crazy when they saw the U.S. performers approaching. “They were all really, really excited to see us,” says dancer Elizabeth Unterbrink. “Everyone was screaming and waving to us. I felt really important, like a rock star.”
Later in the day, the group toured the Forbidden City, the former emperors’ palace, and Tiananmen Square, where one of the dancers asked the tour guide, “Wasn’t this where a lot of people were killed?” In an uncomfortable moment, the guide denied the infamous 1989 massacre ever took place.
After an excursion to the Great Wall that left many breathless and jelly-legged, dancers were welcomed with a huge procession to the Wendu Spa & Resort City, the future site of the 2008 Olympic Village and lodging for the swim teams. There was no shortage of paparazzi, who took a particular liking to the blonde-haired and blue-eyed performers, but even snapped away at the chaperones and yours truly. “It’s like a traveling variety show,” says Josh Ervine, husband of Jazz Unlimited teacher and performer Tracy Librizzi. “I came here to see China, but I got to see so much more than I expected. I mean, when is the last time you were ‘drummed’ into a city?”
Team U.S.A. had a performance that evening on an outdoor stage, but there was much confusion over what time it would start and which numbers would be featured. Since there wasn’t a changing area, the dancers got ready on the bus while parents shooed away curious onlookers. After the show, many were disappointed that the thousands of people in attendance didn’t clap loudly, but Wang explained that it’s customary for Chinese audiences to remain quiet to show that they are humbled by the performances. Henrietta Massina, grandmother of performer Deanna Mondello, reassured the dancers: “I was sitting next to a Chinese man, and after the U.S. number was over, I asked him, ‘What did you think?’ and he said, ‘It was too short.’”
New Cities, New Outlook
The group spent the next few days in the Shanxi province, far outside of Beijing. Here, the dancers were struck by the level of poverty and living conditions of its residents. “We take a lot of things at home for granted,” says dancer Samantha Zweben. “We may not drive the best cars or live in the biggest houses like the stars do, but everyone who went on this trip has it pretty good to be able to come here and do something like this.”
In the city of Jinzhong, Team U.S.A participated in another parade procession, stopping in three different locations to perform. During the final stop, C & C dancer Megan Kinney popped her shoulder out of joint. “I was bombarded by a Chinese doctor, and he sprayed some stuff on my shoulder that made it go completely numb,” says Kinney. Although she was nervous about being injured in a foreign country, by that evening, she was well enough to perform again.
Dancers were treated to a true cultural exchange in Jinzhong and Pingyao, where they shared the stage with Chinese opera performers and traditional folk dancers. There was a noticeable difference between the style of movement of the U.S. dancers and the Chinese. While Team U.S.A’s numbers were dotted with difficult technical moves, the Chinese dancers were more expressive and artistic. The Chinese dancers also had impeccable formations; precision was stressed over individual talent.
In the end, although the dancers were exhausted and ready to go home, they valued the experience and came away with an understanding of a different culture, and had a glimpse into professional touring life. “In so many ways, the whole cultural experience was eye-opening,” says Stagelight teacher and performer Amy Adams. “It was like being on tour, with a kick.” Others described new friendships as the best part of the trip. “These are people who we are usually in competition with, and to see everybody come together and be so nice to each other is amazing,” says Moves & Motions dancer Christina Corsini. “This wasn’t about competition,” agrees Ferraro. “They knew that when they came here, they were representing the United States, and they were dancing together as a team.”