Chicago’s Yin He Dance Company celebrates Chinese art, culture through classical, modern movement
At the core of the dance company is the belief that “dance is for everyone.”
Five years ago, dance instructor Hana Liu could tell two of her youngest students weren’t satisfied with their abilities.
At about 6 years old, the two had just started dance classes at Yin He Dance, a Chinese dance company in Chicago. They weren’t very flexible yet — but a classmate was, Liu said, and she could sense their frustration.
Go home and stretch, Liu told them, and “you will get there, too.”
One day, they came in, and she asked, “Did you stretch?”
“Yes,” they answered. And she could see their progress.
“Knowing that they actually care enough to stretch on their own was something that made me realize the reward from this job,” said Liu, an instructor and dancer at Yin He who, five years later, still has them as students.
Their story illustrates what Yin He means to her, Liu said: “Dance is for everyone.”
That was a core philosophy of Yin He from the start, said Angela Tam, the company’s co-founder and dancer. She started the group in 2015 with dancers Dollie Diaz and Amy Xie. They performed together for years under teacher Jin Qiuyue in a preprofessional dance troupe called Little Star — Xiao Xing Xing in Chinese.
Soon, Jin was looking to retire, and the three dancers realized they weren’t just “kids playing around anymore,” Tam said, but were “pretty good.” They formed their own group and named it Yin He. Inspired by Little Star, Yin He means Milky Way in Chinese. They wanted it to be accessible to everyone and collaborative.
They found Liu and another dancer from the University of Chicago, which kickstarted their public appearances. Tam said they did a lot of neighborhood performances, especially in Chinatown.
The next step was launching the Yin He dance center. Yin He opened its own space in January 2017 and began offering classes with just four students that first month.
“That was pretty sad,” Tam said.
Yin He now has about 60 students. It also has five dancers and two apprentices who perform several times a year, showcasing Chinese classical dances, folk dances and contemporary dances, Tam said.
One of her favorites was in 2019 and early 2020. Tam said the group did a dance called “Flying Kites.” Originally choreographed in 1953, it became popular with dance companies in China. It depicts a group of young women flying kites — symbolized by fans each dancer holds. They move to make imagery with their fans — in the middle of the dance, they’ll make a butterfly. Kites are a visual art form in China, Tam said. It’s very elaborate, and the dance is considered folkloric.
Folk dances are fun, Liu said — celebratory, upbeat and powerful. And anyone can do them, Tam said.
“It would be in a small town during a holiday celebration, all the people in the town would just get together and do that dance in the town square,” Tam said.
Classical involves more training, Liu said. Developed in the mid-1900s, it draws from Chinese martial arts, Chinese opera, Chinese folk dance, ballet and also paintings and sculptures of dancers from ancient times.
“It involves a lot of control in how you move,” Liu said, “but also being able to not have control. Controlling your body but also being relaxed.”
Tam also choreographs dances for the troupe. In 2018, she created a dance inspired by the #MeToo movement. In China, a similar hashtag circulated, with the same pronunciation but a different meaning. In Chinese, “mi” means rice, and “tu” means rabbit, so people used the hashtag “rice rabbit.”
The dance took inspiration from contemporary and classical dance and used wave imagery to convey a sense of women uplifting each other.
When Tam co-founded Yin He Dance, the founders felt that doing both traditional and contemporary dances was important because “culture is always changing.
“I like to tell people, it’s not your grandma’s Chinese dance — but also we do that, too,” Tam said.
Liu started dancing when she was 4 years old. Her mother put her in Chinese classical dance classes at a community center. But she didn’t enjoy it and quit in eighth grade, returning to it years later.
Liu said she now looks back and understands some of the aspects of her dance instruction that pushed her away and tries to help her students understand that.
“Dance is for all ages, all body shapes,” Liu said. “It’s not aligned with flexibility.”
She said Yin He instructors also talk a lot about self-confidence with their students — which they can take beyond dance.
She hopes her students are proud “of what they are doing and how far they’ve come from when they first started.”