By Jennifer Marcus Newton
Ying Li was just 8 years old when she began studying traditional Chinese dance. Two years later, she added voice training to the mix. And it wasn’t long before she felt a growing passion for both.But instruction was demanding and required absolute focus, commitment and physical stamina. From the get-go, Li and her peers were expected to approach dance and voice instruction like real professionals. There were no missed practices unless a student was seriously ill.
The goal was the same for every student: Be the best.
Li grew up in the northeastern coastal city of Dalian in China’s Liaoning Province. With a climate similar to Boston, Li recalls snowy days as she settled in for long bus rides across the city with her parents and a friend, a fellow dance student, to attend a prestigious arts program several times a week. If her parents weren’t able to accompany her, her friend’s parents would instead.
Dance and voice training were considered extracurricular pursuits and took place after the regular school day. They were by invitation only.
Though it may sound like fairly extreme expectations for a child, not to mention a grueling schedule for just about anyone, maintaining her commitment to pursuing excellence in her voice and dance training came naturally for Li. She excelled at both and continued to study voice and dance in college, eventually earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in Traditional Chinese Dance Education from Shenyang Conservatory of Music.
Following her graduation, she was awarded an internship in the southern city of Shenzhen, Guangdong Province. For Li, this would prove to be a pivotal moment in her artistic career, but she wouldn’t discover the magnitude until the final performance of the internship.
On that fateful day and with no advance notice, her dance teacher challenged her with something she had never before tackled: improvisation. In her many years of dance training, she had tirelessly rehearsed and mastered choreographed dance steps and routines before any performance. Now, her teacher was asking her to take the stage with no preparation whatsoever and face an audience made up of fellow dancers and dance instructors.
She wasn’t trained for this. But she accepted the challenge anyway.
Feeling more than a little out of her element, she stepped on stage, and embracing the moment of uncertainty, she began to dance from the heart. As she did, she felt something mighty powerful stir within.
This momentous experience stoked a fire that flashed bright that day as she danced unrehearsed steps in front of peers and critics, and continues to burn today years after the performance.
For the next six years, Li put her talent and skills to work in the Children’s Palace in Dalian, where she was responsible for teaching, choreographing, physical and artistic training, and production performance. She organized and coordinated children’s dance programs for live television shows.
And she began to garner nationwide recognition and awards as a dancer, teacher and choreographer.
She was honored with the Gold Award for “Little Girl by Huaihe River” and the Outstanding Creative Award for “Little Heroine” in the Harmonious Spring Festival Evening Gala hosted by China Central TV (CCTV). Her dance “Flower Blooms for the Spring” received the Gold Award in the Dandelion National Youth Talent Selection Competition. She was named Outstanding Teacher of Children’s Art Training in Dalian, received the Outstanding Instructor Award in Sino-Japan-South Korea International Youth Arts Exhibition, and remains the first and only Chinese dance instructor in the Cowles Center’s Distance Learning Program.
Then with a career in full bloom in China, Li felt the tug of adventure pulling her in a brand-new direction. In 2006, she left Dalian and settled in Minnesota. As with her life-changing experience with improvisation as a young college graduate, adapting to a new culture and learning a new language challenged Li to stretch bravely towards the unknown. Her one constant was Chinese dance, and it wasn’t long before she crossed paths with Teng Lili, principal dance teacher at CAAM Chinese Dance Theater.
Without a moment’s hesitation, Teng invited her to join the teaching team at CAAM Chinese Dance Theater.
This new endeavor required a few additional cultural adaptations for Li, who adjusted her more traditional Chinese teaching style to align with her new American students’ expectations and experiences — and those of their parents.
Li speaks passionately about her modified American teaching style, and it’s clear that this multicultural approach suits her. Instead of encouraging each student to strive towards a single and standardized interpretation of being the best, a philosophy that shaped Li as a young dancer, she nurtures the unique strengths and abilities of each student and customizes her instruction from that point.
No two students are alike, and that’s perfectly okay.
That’s not to say that Li doesn’t hold high expectations for each student. Because she does. She relishes the journey of helping to bring out each student’s personal best, and she doesn’t back down from maintaining high, professional-level expectations for CAAM’s performances and productions throughout the year.
But Li loves to teach, and it comes as naturally to her as dancing and singing. From the littlest dancers fine-tuning somersaults and basic stretches to seasoned adults who bring life experience to the complex stories set on stage, and the lithe teens in between who’ve mastered aerials and twists and turns of unimaginable configurations, Li nurtures each individual student to achieve what’s best for her. Nothing more, nothing less.
CAAM’s creative and cultural offerings are enormously valued within the CAAM community, as well as the greater Twin Cities. Year after year, patrons snap up tickets for the Lunar New Year productions at St. Catherine University’s O'Shaughnessy Auditorium.
Li proudly describes CAAM Chinese Dance Theater as an inclusive, tightly knit community of dancers and their families who are intertwined in the pursuit of learning the art of traditional Chinese dance. They come together to celebrate Chinese culture and language, to foster a balanced cultural exchange of values, ideas, and perspectives, and, of course, the opportunity to strengthen physical skills and artistic expression.
Trained for this or otherwise, Ying Li wouldn’t have it any other way.
CAAM Chinese Dance Theater is expanding its class offerings in Saint Paul and Richfield this fall. Check the current class schedule online. And mark your calendar for the 2018 Lunar New Year production on Jan. 27 at 7 p.m. and Jan.28 at 2 p.m. at The O'Shaughnessy. Tickets sell out fast.