At age nineteen, Sunni Zhou is already a dancer with Shen Yun Performing Arts—a premier classical Chinese dance company based in New York.
Zhou says through studying classical Chinese dance, she saw a change in herself.
“Before I started dancing, I was a relatively selfish person, and I wanted to be in charge. I have a young brother, and ever since I was little, I was used to being the person that’s always right,” she said.
But after she started dancing for Shen Yun, Zhou found cooperating with others is a must for group dance.
“At that time you would realize that if you only think about yourself, or if you only think about expressing something of your own, then you would look different from other dancers. Then it’d be really hard for you to melt into the group. So it occurred to me that dancing is not to express myself, this one person, but to express us as a group and spread traditional culture,” she said.
Cooperation aside, a classical Chinese dancer is often tested by arduous training regimens.
“I cry a lot. Actually dance training oftentimes brings me physical pain. Sometimes I can’t bear it and would just cry,” Zhou said.
But she says she doesn’t see crying as a bad thing, but a chance to learn instead: “Don’t be scared to fall, but you must get up after the fall and keep going forward. This is the most important thing.”
Zhou says when things get really difficult, it’s a sense of purpose that keeps her going. “We would think about the big picture, why are we learning dance, and why are we spreading this traditional Chinese culture. If we think big then it’s easier to pass the tribulations. You’ve got to have grit and can’t give up easily,” she added.
Shen Yun, the performing arts company Zhou dances with, says its mission is to revive China’s 5,000 years of traditional culture. Those traditions had, at one time, reached the brink of extinction—after the communist regime took over China.
With that mission comes high requirements. But Zhou says the atmosphere among her fellow dancers is not one fueled by competition.
“When we practice dance, we try to do it with a pure heart. There’s no mentality like ‘I want to be number one, or I want to be better than others.’ [We] just keep a good state of mind and keep practicing. Because I am a dancer, I should just practice, and then naturally, if you put in enough effort, you will reap the reward,” she said.
Also at Shen Yun, Zhou learned a unique dance method known as “shen-dai-shou,” or “the body leads the hands”; and “kua-dai-tui,” or “the hips lead the legs.” Zhou says it helps the dancer’s movements become bigger and clearer.
“Because when we dance we’d like to make the movements as long as possible, so the spot where the movement gets its energy from should be toward our center. If it’s more toward our center, then once the move spreads out, it’s the longest and the most beautiful, and we can also express ourselves more clearly on stage,” she said.
On top of techniques, Zhou says a dancer’s inner state is also crucial to her performance, and that: “classical Chinese dance is different from other dances because it needs to express the dancer’s inner beauty. And such beauty is not something that can be achieved just by practicing movements daily. You really have to search for it in your heart so when you dance, you can actually express that inner beauty to the audience.
In this competition, Zhou will play a little girl that snuck out of the house and went to play in a garden, when “it’s springtime, and the scenery is beautiful, so she was carried away by the beautiful surroundings.”
Even though it looks like a simple story, Zhou says because the dance moves are slower, it’s hard to find the connections between the movements and make them look beautiful and smooth.
“You really have to perform a movement to its fullest extent and to power the movement from inside your body and extend it to the tips of your limbs, make the movements as full as possible, which is quite hard.”
Zhou says it’s also the connections between movements that make classical Chinese dance beautiful. She’s been working to improve her muscle control and make her moves as graceful as possible.