Dancing with Jiajia on the Spine of the Temple of Heaven

By Aleta Hayes


THIS PAST DECEMBER I was selected as one of seven American choreographers to engage in a cultural exchange in China, a program of ZiRu Productions and Dancers’ Group—with financial support from the U.S. State Department and its Embassy in Beijing. The mission of the exchange is to build greater cross-cultural understanding and cooperation through dance education at universities in China. I proposed to teach Liquid Flow, a movement philosophy, improvisational technique class and compositional workshop that I have developed at Stanford University over the past 8 years.

First stop—Beijing Normal University (BNU)—an urban campus indistinguishable from its surroundings, located about an hour from the center of the city by cab. There are 200 universities in Beijing, all of them self-contained villages with eateries, mini-grocers and mobile phone stores, including a florist, and a good one, I was told.

Aleta and Jiajia in front of a house
Aleta Hayes, Jiajia Tong and her son within a courtyard of a traditional Chinese house, photo courtesy of Aleta Hayes

The first thing I noticed about BNU is that people didn’t really pay me any mind, which surprised me. Having travelled quite a lot all over the world and having been stared at by people who haven’t seen too many Black folks, I had girded myself up for the curious onlooker. Nope. Students, all stripes, old and young, were shoulder to the wheel, hungry for an education, rushing by me on their rusty bikes, with nary a glance. Education in China is revered. It’s a god. Even dancers I met from the rural parts of China had heard of Stanford University.

The dancers at Beijing Normal were beautifully trained, although the focus of the school is to train dance educators. These dancers were not only wonderful movers and quick studies but they all possessed a very fluid dance style. I should have expected it.

Liquid Flow was born out of my desire to combine contemporary dance training with what I had learned from a little known but great teacher of T’ai Chi, Chi Kung and a rarely taught martial art style called Chinese Water Boxing. Exposure to these forms really changed my approach to dance. I found that the use of imagery, and the exploration and application of flow— physical, psychological, cognitive—to formal dance styles, as well as to vernacular movement in everyday life, not only interested me, but also dancers from different styles and traditions, athletes and scientists, designers and poets, beginners to advanced.

Through my own research and student interest in the concepts of flow, I have also applied concepts from thermodynamics, design thinking, cellular movement and wave theory to frame the continuum from pedestrian dancing to classroom dancing, to the stage. This approach to dance has led me to a career-long study and appreciation of the ‘thing beneath the thing,’ the fundamental and structural elements of dance. All dance. Unlike more Western styles of dance, and specifically jumping techniques that are seen in ballet, I want to know for example, how the Massai jump so high without hardly bending their knees? What is a plie?? Why plie?? How do we use gravity and weight sensing in various dance styles?

Despite my plans to share Liquid Flow with the students in China, the message I got from my translator, Mayu, (as relayed to her by the administration) was that they wanted steps, lots of them, the latest and greatest contemporary dance steps from the West. Please teacher.

I went to my hotel room that night and I worked on several hot combinations and I got up the next day and did not show any. I knew that I must give what I came to give: my technique using improvisational prompts, compositional strategies and ways of looking, doing, being that comprised Liquid Flow. I wanted to challenge the formidable technique they already had, to deepen their physicality and give them tools to look at dance training as a system of thought. Liquid Flow was in fact a way of thinking in addition to physical training. And most importantly, I was there to open their imaginations and to help them discover the unique dancer inside and outside of a dance context.

During the first class I noticed a tall, elegant, young-looking dancer, curiously delicate and impossibly long limbed. After class she approached me and introduced herself as a lecturer and dance scholar at the one of the most famous universities in China, Peking University. Her name was Jiajia Tong; Jiajia’s name holds multiple meanings; beauty, fortune and goodness. She extended her hospitality to me and insisted that I see where she studied and now taught. The architecture of Peking University (PKU) looked every bit like a mini Forbidden City and in fact was once an imperial palace. It is a refined campus, with a lake for ice-skating when it freezes over in the winter, a fancy hotel, a florist with daily flowers worthy of a wedding, a great restaurant, posh bar and renowned professional schools. Unlike the lively, crowded BNU, PKU on the Garden of Yan was hushed, surrounded by gates and a guard with white gloves. And right in the heart of Peking University, was the newly built Stanford Center.

After I met Jiajia, a different sort of cultural exchange began. From the start we finished each other’s sentences. We commiserated over the seeming invisible standing of dance in our respective universities, and we bonded over the fact that we had both had attended the universities that we taught in. On a personal level, she also had a doting but absent father who treated her like an eldest son instead of an only daughter. We both resisted being pigeon holed. Both of us are attracted to interdisciplinarity. We both see dance in a larger cultural context and we share a love of the theoretical, the poetic and syncretic, all in equal measure. We were like twins from across the world. Even her mother reminded me of my mother. Both of them are very social, in charge, supportive but living more than a little vicariously, through their daughters’ dance careers.

On a bracing cold day Jaijia took me to the Temple of Heaven. As we strolled arm in arm (something you see women do—taking your arm at the elbow), she pointed out common scenes of the locals: calligraphers copying sacred texts with a book in one hand, wielding a long handled brush dipped in water with the other; old men playing traditional instruments; groups of old women laughing.

She took me to the Zoo. That’s what they called this shopping area (for Chinese consumption only). We were met by The Grandmas to show us the best places. Oh, and you must have a guide. The Grandmas (that’s what Jiajia calls them), are the ladies her mother hangs out with to do daily morning exercise at Behei Park, for gossiping, for bargaining as sport at the Zoo.

I had heard about The Grandmas before I came to China from Caroline Chen who is writing her dissertation at UC Berkeley on the phenomena of these ‘dance clubs.’ They dance all over Beijing—under bridges, in temple parks, down alleyways, on patches of asphalt. They combine folkloric dances drawn from different regions in China with dance moves they find on YouTube, which then gets remixed as a routine and performed to some good ole Michael Jackson or accompanied by their own instruments. Imagine rounding a corner and witnessing 20 elderly women dancing up a storm at 10 o’clock at night. I asked Jiajia if it was dangerous for them to be out like that. And she laughed. I guess not.

Wherever we went, Jiajia related how the philosophy of Liquid Flow could be applied to traditional Chinese culture. I was incredulous. I was moved. I was grateful for these cultural translations. She led me through the Forbidden City, which seemed to be never ending. It was so strange to be able to look into the wedding suite of a royal. You stand behind a low barrier and you almost fall into that faded world. It’s easy to dream. You can hear the music.

Jiajia reminded me how the emperor was never allowed to leave the palace. “This rock garden would have been the great outdoors for the imperial family. See the holes in the rocks. We believe that these rocks are living entities. The openings allow the flow of energy around and through them.”

Next Stop: Tianjing University on a fast train 30 minutes from Beijing. After I taught my master class, they arranged for me to witness the rehearsal of two of their ethnic dance pieces. The first dance they performed from the Han Dynasty floored me. Twelve women with lilting heads and sidelong expressions with arms like scarves, swimming through the air, their feet drumming a hypnotic pattern… on drums placed around the floor. Almost at the climax of the polyrhythms, they start to sing. Good lord. I began to cry it was so astounding. The chair of the Dance Department—one of the foremost scholars of ethnic, folk and cultural dances in China—nodded at me. This was her life work.

group of students
Students at Beijing Normal University, photo courtesy of Aleta Hayes

China reportedly has 2,000 ethnic and folk dances. National, ethnic and cultural dance is required curriculum in dance departments across China. Thinking back to when I first came to BNU where they were asking for steps, as most dancers anywhere in the world would desire, I gained an essential insight. The Chinese have more content, more steps, than they know what to do with. Some dances are athletic and gymnastic, some use musical instruments or swords, fabrics, props. There are so many different types of dance and as many shoes. Going to the dance shoe store is like shopping at Nordstrom. There are dances that use masks or those that have codified facial expressions like the Han Dynasty dance. There are endless variations and possibilities. Just thinking about that makes me want to travel around China and dream of choreographies.

As to their desire to learn the western contemporary styles of dance, I wondered what could bring them more into the western contemporary milieu? The mindset of breaking, remixing and recombining. Compositional strategies from Liquid Flow. Liquid mind. What if they began to interpolate their folk dances in the same way that Nijinsky or Balanchine did? What if they looked at the way that African-American youth create new social dances through remixing of West African dance steps and what-have-you and have included quotations of that movement through African- American dances across generations?

Chinese dancers could do worse than to adopt the strategies of The Grandmas. They are not even considered dancers by the formal dance community. In fact, there are persistent complaints in the city about their use of boom boxes—noise pollution—since their studios are all outdoors.

I took a risk when I didn’t teach big dance phrases. Would Liquid Flow work as a pedagogical approach in a distinctly different cultural context with well-trained dancers in an insular dance world? Instead, I brought the same fundamental exercises that I use in Liquid Flow classes at Stanford and with my performance troupe, Chocolate Heads.

One example of a series of exercises in class is that I have students lie on the floor on their backs and then onto their sides and stomach: to enact swimming on the floor to energize the core body and activate the limbs from their center to the edge of their kinesphere. When they stand up, I ask them to swim on one leg in all directions like a standing starfish. Change legs. For the second part of the exercise, I ask them to imagine themselves as a flower, a specific flower. In 12 counts, they grow from the floor up onto a single leg (the stem) not to be executed like a de?velope?, but as a unique flower pulling up from the ground through their innards and out through the fingertips, blooming into space. Follow that by decaying into the floor with just as much sustainment and articulation. Bloom and decay right and left sides. Sometimes I ask the onlookers to guess the flower they made. You would be surprised how often people guess the image.

What the students achieve is one of the hardest things to do in dance: to stand on one leg and extend your limbs in a coordinated fashion. This exercise makes it possible for everyone to construct a flower—beginners to advanced students—with integrity and beauty. Like magic, they have created themselves in space. This is just one example of Liquid imaging and sensating to put dancers at the helm of their dance creation. My mission is to continue to innovate improvisational techniques as tools to articulate the human instrument for unique expression. My pedagogical approach to technique is to make it as open, easy, accessible, joyous and non-threatening as possible – to bring out each persons own innate creative urges/impulses and instinctual knowledge. I seek to create a surprise, a gift, a roundabout way to enter and make a dance. My colleague, choreographer and horse-dancer JoAnna Mendl Shaw used to invoke a particular kind of non-thinking and even non-dancing framework to bring dance out of dancers. I am developing my own Liquid Flow methodology to do the same.

After four days of teaching I saw the BNU students drawing from these elemental exercises to create complex movement vocabulary and choreography with a creative force that would have been difficult to illustrate solely on my own body.

One of last day at BNU, one very shy dancer thanked me and in broken English said. “Since the time I was a little girl I have been told, do this, don’t do that. You should do this. You shouldn’t do that.

For the first time in my life, I feel like I know what to do from the inside. Xiexie—thank you teacher.”

And what more could any teacher want?

This article appeared in the March 2014 issue of In Dance.

Aleta Hayes is a singer, dancer, actor, choreographer and lecturer in Contemporary Dance and Performance in the Department of Theater and Performance Studies at Stanford University. An alumna of Stanford in the Drama Department, Aleta returned to the university as a Ford Foundation Artist Fellow in 2005. Her teaching includes pedagogically innovative classes combining embodied research, theory, practice and performance, channeled through the lens of dance and movement. In 2009 Hayes founded a cross-genre and dance- driven performance troupe including dancers, musicians, visual and spoken word artists, called the Chocolate Heads Movement Band which has performed at Stanford TedX, Bing Concert Hall and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.