Like many high school students, Anna Zheng has a busy schedule of calculus homework, SAT preparation, and planning summer beach trips with friends.
But the way she spends her Sundays is a bit different: leading over 30 dancers, some as young as eight years old, through Chinese folk dance routines. The troupe, named Ruby Slippers Chinese Dance Club, rehearses at a Cary-based dance studio, tucked into a nondescript strip of small businesses.
Under fluorescent lights, floor-to-ceiling mirrors reflect an entourage of teenagers, most of Chinese American heritage, moving in sync with the lulling melodies of flutes, cymbals, and strings. The elegant music echoes throughout the rest of the building—relatively empty on an early weekend morning—with the occasional straggler catching a glimpse of the dancers’ routine from the hallway.
“Ruby Slippers has a big connection to my culture,” Zheng says. “Ruby Slippers is a real tie between my identity as a Chinese person as well as my love for dance.”
The high school junior serves as president of the Ruby Slippers Chinese Dance Club, a nonprofit affiliate of the Raleigh Academy of Chinese Language, a local Chinese language school. Founded by 10 passionate dancers in 2006, the club has since expanded to form two performance troupes of over 30 members.
Unlike in most dance programs, students are the primary leaders of the club. Zheng is an instructor, alongside a student board of 11 other high school dancers who teach and mentor younger students. They develop choreography, organize performances, and collaborate with local organizations.
Zheng says that the club’s tight-knit community has helped it thrive over the years.
“The people who’ve graduated and were teachers are just, like, part of the club; we’re still connected,” Zheng says. “There’s a real sense of connection between everybody because it’s not just, like, a teacher telling you what to do. [We’re] student leaders, so everybody has a way to express their individuality.”
Ruby Slippers is a testament to the thriving—and burgeoning—arts scene within the Triangle’s Chinese American diaspora, with a handful of local organizations tailoring traditional Chinese dance to performers of all ages.
Cary Chinese School, an organization similar to the Raleigh Academy of Chinese Language, offers classes in Chinese dance for elementary-school-aged dancers. Teenagers on the NC Youth Performing Team perform folk dances at local cultural events across Wake County. Triangle Chinese Dance Club—mostly composed of middle-aged dancers, many of whom are parents—is an outlet for dancers who still hold an affinity for the art form.
The popularity is, in part, due to the steadily increasing Chinese American population, with a recent joint study between UNC-Chapel Hill’s Asian American Center and Carolina Demography indicating that the statewide Asian population grew by 64 percent between 2010 and 2020.
“This past year we had a record number of prospective dancers at our annual auditions, [and] I think this shows that Chinese dance is popular among the youth,” says Duke University Chinese Dance representative James Liao, describing the range of backgrounds the club’s members hail from. “Some of our dancers had years of Chinese dance experience before coming to Duke. However, many also did not come from any dance background and decided to join our group to learn.”
Many dances that these groups perform center around narratives inspired by traditional Chinese folklore that depict ancient legends or mythical creatures.
“There’s always intention behind every movement, even down to your fingertips,” Zheng says of the routines.
Despite its deep roots in Chinese history, the form only began appearing in official dance curricula in China during the 1950s. Chinese immigrants would later bring the dance to the United States, teaching dances to family and friends during parties or celebrations. Now it offers Chinese American youth a chance to reconnect with their heritage.
“I always say that Chinese dance is one of the best ways to introduce Chinese culture and history to people,” says Cheer Pan, cofounder of the Pan America Chinese Dance Alliance (PACDA). “A lot of people only consider ballet and modern dances serious forms of dance. And Chinese dance [is just] as valuable [and] takes as much effort and training.”
Pan was born into a family of dance educators, and both her parents serve as instructors at the Beijing Dance Academy. PACDA promotes Chinese dance education and cross-cultural learning for younger generations of dancers and hosts competitions that youth dance clubs, like Ruby Slippers, can participate in. These competitions bring together dance troupes and programs across the country and allow young dancers to improve upon their practice. They also serve as opportunities to spark curiosity about Chinese culture.
But regardless of whether young dancers choose to pursue the art form beyond high school, Pan believes in its importance in increasing visibility for Asian American culture and in diversifying mainstream dance.
“It’s important to send a message that there’s not just one form of beauty,” she says.
Zheng has a similar attitude and says that she sees Ruby Slippers dancers as cultural ambassadors in the community. Recently, the group performed at Cary’s Taste of China festival, an affiliate of the Chinese-American Friendship Association of North Carolina, and hosted a booth, selling baked goods and sharing information about Chinese culture.
“What we do in dancing, as well as what we do as a group, is a way to educate people about how Chinese culture is,” says Zheng.
Reflecting on her journey from a young age, she found that it is the community of fellow Chinese American dancers that she is most grateful for. “I’m really appreciative of the opportunities it’s given me and has raised me as a leader,” Zheng says. “It’s been a community.”
Comment on this story at email@example.com.
Support independent local journalism.
Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.