Building Bridges Through Dance

14 AUGUST 2023 | Chris Nash

At SACU we are looking for innovative ways to grow our mission of better understanding between China and the UK. We are interested in ‘bridge builders’, people who can bring the two cultures together in ways which promote mutual understanding. Recently it was my honour to meet and talk with Zhou Hangyu, who is passionate about introducing her specialist medium, Chinese dance, to audiences here in the UK and across the world.

Hangyu ( English name Joanna) started by her telling me her fascinating back story. She is originally from the north-eastern Liaoning province which makes her in Chinese terms ‘Dong bei Ren’ – a north-easterner. Hangyu got her first taste for dance when she trained with the People’s Liberation Army Art Academy. Her talent was quickly noticed and encouraged. Wanting to add to her dance repertoire and range of skills, she then enrolled in the Beijing Academy of Dance. It was here that she started to learn both dances from the various ethnic minority communities in China, but also to be able to study western dance moves for the first time.

But even Beijing was not enough to satisfy Hangyu’s dancing ambitions. Even though she had never learned to speak English she was driven to study for a Master’s degree in an English university. Eventually she obtained a place at Roehampton University, but little did she know that taking up a place to study there would change her life. When she was started her studies there she was impressed by two things. The first was the level of ignorance about Chinese dance amongst western students on her course. The second was the enthusiasm that they had for learning Chinese dance moves once they saw her performing. It was common for students to assume that her dance came from Japan, because they didn’t know the history of how Japan had imported all aspects of traditional Chinese culture from the T’ang Dynasty in the eighth century.

The curiosity of other students about her dance, planted the seed in Hangyu’s mind that there was a wider job to be done sharing Chinese dance culture with any who wanted to learn. She found two paths opened up for her. The first was to teach and give demonstrations in various UK universities following networks established by her dance teachers at Roehampton. The second was to offer dance classes to students studying at various Chinese language schools in London. She found young people, both English and Chinese, were fascinated to see something new and different to go alongside their hip hop moves. Her adult dance classes too attracted people of a range of ages ( her eldest student is in her 70’s!) and across a range of cultures. She has even taught a French student to sing in Chinese, using the pinyin method!

By 2019, Hangyu found that she had a devoted collection of both adult and junior students. The next stage she realised was to give the students an opportunity to share their new found skills with audiences here in the UK. To give her ambitions a platform, she formed her own company called the UK China Performing Arts Company and set about creating a festival of dance to showcase the achievements of her students. In August 2019 this enterprise resulted in the first ever ‘Silk Road Dance Festival’ given at the artsdepot theatre, Nether Street, in North London. For the years of the pandemic, performances moved online, but this year in 2023, she made a triumphant return to live performance with the second ‘Silk Road Dance Festival’ this time in a bigger theatre in Stratford and with the support of the Chinese embassy in the UK.

Why Silk Roads? Hangyu explained that it’s not just about teaching the mechanics of dance movements to her students but also helping them to understand the history and culture driving the dance. In the Tang period ( 628 to 907) the silk roads which spun out from the Tang capital city in Xi’an were the cultural centre of interweaving worlds. Costumes and dances and music from across Central Asia were all the rage, so much so that the court started to dress in the fashions of the steppes, and equally Chinese influences spread west to the edges of Europe. Now through the ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiatives, a confident China is once again sharing dynamic art and culture with the world. Hangyu’s performances are opening up these deep Chinese traditions to British audiences for the first time. And as Hangyu poetically explained, the stream of silk ribbon which is the symbol for her organisation, flutters beautifully into the shape of the River Thames, a true representation of Anglo-Chinese understanding.

I am sure all SACU members will want to support Hangyu Zhou and her UK China Performing Arts project. If you’d like to see some of her work immediately there are examples on YouTube, if you search under the company name. As I left her, I promised I would stay in touch and explore other ways in which SACU can appreciate and support her initiatives in dance education.

(Image description: Zhou Hangyu in a red dress smiling at the camera)