Megan Li is young, modest, and shy. Yet she performs leading roles onstage in front of packed theatres all over the world as a classical Chinese dancer on tour with Shen Yun Performing Arts. Onstage, she can be bold, “instead of hiding in a corner,” as she tends to do offstage, she says.
“I don’t really like to express myself in words. After dancing for a while, I’ve realized I don’t have to talk — I can express the role that I have, the dance, and I feel like I’m talking to the audience through my dancing,” she says.
Classical Chinese dance is a particularly rich and expressive language. Each minute gesture, as well as the dancer’s overall bearing, is meant to convey his or her inner thoughts, feelings, and values.
Some performing arts require a good measure of confidence and extroversion, but the characteristics of classical Chinese dance make it particularly suited to a humble and gentle spirit.
Cooperation and synchronization are emphasized, as opposed to competition for the limelight. Shen Yun’s mission to revive 5,000 years of Chinese culture emphasizes ideals rooted in Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism, which are the essence of traditional Chinese culture. These have long been an integral part of classical Chinese dance as well.
“I try to think more positive. When I think positive, I feel more happy when I dance. When I act, I’m more in the mood, more into that character.”
Inner beauty takes centre stage
Shen Yun dancers place emphasis on the improvement of the mind and heart, because a central principle in classical Chinese dance holds that a dancer’s inner state is visible on the stage. Shen Yun is more than a performance group, it’s a group of people improving themselves together from the inside out.
Li gives an example of how improving her mind is reflected in her performance. “I have to always look inside to see if I have anything that’s blocking my feelings, preventing me from being happy. If I’m going through a hardship that I can’t overcome, [I look at] what I’m doing wrong, what I’m thinking wrong, anything that’s negative,” she says. “After I realize it, I try to think more positive. When I think positive, I feel more happy when I dance. When I act, I’m more in the mood, more into that character.”
Instead of thinking negatively about the physical pain she can sometimes feel in training, she says, “The soreness is a way to tell me I am improving, gaining the muscles that I need.”
Before joining Shen Yun, Li would watch the performance every year when it came to San Francisco, where she grew up. It always came in January, around her birthday. “It would be the best birthday present ever,” she says. “I would be very mesmerized every time I watched.”
She was into sports, and she was also shy. So, although she deeply appreciated the performance, dancing onstage wasn’t something she ever dreamed she would do herself.
The rhythm of life
Li and her parents had moved to the United States from China when she was 2 years old. She felt more American than Chinese, without a strong connection to Chinese culture. But her mother sent her to Shen Yun Academy of the Arts in California when she was 12 years old, in 2010, to deepen her understanding of her heritage.
The courses in Chinese history there opened her eyes to the beauty and depth of that heritage. She took dance classes, since dance is a major focus at the Academy. But she was surprised to find herself selected to join Shen Yun on tour, suddenly swept up into a life of dancing in front of thousands of people in some of the world’s most prestigious theatres.
She has been touring for four years, and is now a lead dancer for the company, which is the paramount company in the world for classical Chinese dance. Yet she’s still reluctant to speak of herself as skilled. She’s quick to doubt the praise of others, but she’s working on it, hoping to continually build her confidence through dance.
It’s been exciting exploring the world while touring, but the time-zone changes and other wearying aspects of travelling have been challenging. “We want to show everyone around the world what Chinese culture is,” Li says of the strong dedication the dancers have to Shen Yun’s mission. “We have to suffer to bring this beauty to others,” she says.
Another important part of Shen Yun’s mission is to “show people the truth behind the Communist Party,” she says. Li and her mother both practice Falun Dafa, a spiritual meditation practice that originated in China, but which has been brutally persecuted by the communist regime since 1999. Many Falun Dafa practitioners have found asylum in the United States.
One of the roles that stands out to Li that she has played in Shen Yun was in a dance about the persecution of Falun Dafa. In this dance, a Falun Dafa practitioner (played by Li) hands a Falun Dafa banner to a baby girl in her mother’s arms. That mother is killed by the regime for her belief in Falun Dafa, and the baby is raised by her grandfather.
As the child grows up, she seeks to understand what happened to her mother. The child sees the practitioner played by Li and is drawn to her. The child reconnects with Li and with Falun Dafa, learning about the profound beliefs her mother died for.
Many people in China have been influenced by the regime’s pervasive, false propaganda against Falun Dafa. Li’s relationship with her father was difficult because he was influenced by the regime. Her father died two years ago, and one of her great sorrows is that he never saw her perform in Shen Yun.
Dancing in Shen Yun gives her courage. One of the legends depicted by Shen Yun especially resonates with her. It is the legend of Mulan.
In this legend, Mulan is a young woman whose battle-worn and weakened father is conscripted for a coming war. To spare him, she disguises herself as a man and takes his place, displaying great courage on the battlefield and winning honours.
“It makes me feel I should help others more, and help myself become better, too,” she says. The story of Mulan gives her confidence that she and her fellow dancers can boldly strive to great heights like Mulan and her fellow soldiers.