As the stage curtain opens, fifteen Tang Dynasty ladies wearing turquoise dresses with long pink sleeves—twice as long as their arms—float onto the stage like fairies on water. On the ground, the long sleeves pool together like puddles. As the dancers kick their legs and shoot their arms out, the bright fabric flutters past their fingertips like rippling waves.
The dance is called Sleeves of the Tang Palace, performed by Shen Yun Performing Arts in last year’s world tour.
The water sleeves dance technique originated in the Han Dynasty and became popular in the Tang Dynasty. The challenging technique is analogous to classical Chinese dance itself. It appears effortless and magical, yet to control these long, silky sleeves with such accuracy and ease requires the dancer to harmonize body, mind, and spirit. Her form and technique are driven by the invisible quality of bearing, which is the dancer’s unique inner characteristic of classical Chinese dance from which all movement begins.
“The water sleeves are elegant and light in the eyes of the audience members, but achieving gracefulness with the technique is not easy,” says Angela Xiao, a principal dancer for Shen Yun Performing Arts . “The water sleeves are an extension of the fingers. Dancers have to send their strength to somewhere farther than usual when they dance, which makes it harder to control.”
Xiao says she couldn’t control the sleeves at all when she first started learning the technique.
“I didn’t know where they would fly or where they would be tangled. My classmates sometimes joked and asked whether it was too windy that day,” Xiao says with a smile.
The most frustrating technique for Xiao was trying to toss the sleeves out accurately in a straight line.
“Someone told me that the water sleeves is a difficult technique in classical Chinese dance,” Xiao says. “One needs to have good form and bearing to do it properly. The technique in the form can be honed by constant practice. But for bearing, it needs change from inside; one has to feel and understand the inner meaning of the dance.”
Classical Chinese dance has a history of several thousand years and embodies many traditional Chinese virtues. If dancers don’t understand the moral fiber of the legendary figures in their dances, their movements will seem artificial and contrived. To make the dance feel authentic, the movements need to be connected to the inner meanings and traditional values that permeated ancient China. Cultivating that timeless, uplifting spirit is the most demanding and beautiful aspect of classical Chinese dance.
At Fei Tian Academy in New York, Xiao learned the techniques and bearing of classical Chinese dance, as well as attended many classes about traditional Chinese culture.
She recalls the advice of her teacher. “You should come to each class like a sheet of blank paper, putting away all the ideas and notions from the past. Be open-minded to accept something new.”
In the course of her studies, Xiao came across many principles from Taoism and applied them to her dance. Laozi said, “There is nothing in the world softer and weaker than water, and yet for attacking things that are firm and strong, there is nothing that can take precedence over it; it is formless and can overcome any obstacle.”
Determined to perfect the technique, Xiao recorded and analyzed herself practicing. The water sleeves would move in different ways based on where she exerted strength. After closely studying the video, she gained insight into the seemingly contradictory character of water.
“I realized I should exert my strength in the opposite direction of where I want them to go. Because water sleeves are soft.” she says. “It’s like paddling in water—if you want the boat to go forward, you have to paddle backwards.”
Turning the Tide
Xiao immigrated to Vancouver with her family at the age of 4. As a child, she admired classical Chinese costumes and wanted to learn classical Chinese dance. She was later accepted at Fei Tian Academy in New York, the world’s leading classical Chinese dance academy, being one step closer to her childhood dream. Xiao has a quiet, gentle personality. At Fei Tian, and later as a principal dancer in Shen Yun, she had a hard time expressing herself and resolving internal anxiety.
“I felt stressed when being the principal dancer at the beginning because of the solo dance. I was afraid of not dancing well in front of all the people,” Xiao says.
“Whenever I didn’t practice well and made mistakes, I would indulge in negative emotions. I would be very anxious,” she says. “But the more anxious I was, the worse things would get. When I was performing, if I felt I didn’t do a move perfectly, I would feel restless, which would affect my performance in the next program.”
Xiao continued to learn from the figurative nature of water. “One day, I felt bad when practicing because I thought I didn’t do well. But in a later rehearsal, I saw the overall effect of that dance onstage. It was really beautiful and spectacular. We’re a group. I’m like a drop of water. I shouldn’t enlarge myself on the stage. It will be fine as long as I try my best.”
After changing her thinking, this constant burden was lifted from her heart. “Now I see things the opposite way. There’s always going to be problems, and it’s a good thing to find them. It’s an opportunity for me to improve.”
The 2020 Shen Yun tour has begun. Every year is a new show, and a new set of challenges and opportunities for Xiao to grow personally through China’s beautiful ancient art form.
“The mission of Shen Yun is to bring back 5,000 years of Chinese culture,” Xiao says. “Shen Yun shows the dancers’ inner selves. We have to understand and comprehend traditional culture first, and then show it onstage through the language of dance.”