Professor and director of the African American Dance Company Iris Rosa is strict about how her dancers wear their hair. Black-, white- and short-haired dancers alike get their hair braided in cornrows.
So when the dance company traveled to Beijing during winter break to explore China and perform and dance with students from the China University of Mining and Technology Beijing, one dancer from the AADC sat with some of the Chinese students and cornrowed their hair.
“That was such a beautiful moment of a cross-cultural experience,” Rosa said.
The AADC spent nearly a week in China from Dec. 16 to Dec. 23. This was the company’s first time abroad as a group in Rosa’s 43 years directing the them.
“To see my students actually perform in China at formal concert and the way they were accepted and to hear the applause was really very exciting,” Rosa said.
A visiting scholar, Yingli Zhou, who saw Rosa’s group dance last spring, was instrumental in organizing the trip. Rosa said she was very excited about what they were doing. Zhou helped with the orientation sessions by letting the dancers know about culture, history and other travel-related issues.
Rosa taught a master class for all the students, and the AADC students participated in a traditional Chinese dance class.
“When you talk about dance, dance is a discipline that cultures have been doing for years,” Rosa said. “I think that these Chinese students somehow can relate to not only their own type of traditional movement but are very accepting of other type of movement. They know about hip-hop, contemporary dance and different styles, so this just put it into practice ”
The AADC dancers were matched with students from the Chinese university to be shown around Beijing. Amelia Smith, an associate director for the AADC who also performs with the group, was with Parhatjan, a 20-year-old student from a northwestern province of China.
Smith said, as an older student, she was apprehensive about having a young partner.
However, one night she and Parhatjan were out together walking down a hallway and passed a group of people. She said Parhatjan told her when people look at him and her, the people think they are both foreigners. She said this is because Parhatjan is from a Chinese minority group and Chinese was not his first language.
Smith said she was grateful to have a partner who gave her such insight into his life.
“I really had very stereotypical perceptions of what it meant to be Chinese,” Smith said. “China is a huge country, not unlike the United States. The U.S. differs in the sense that we are also represented by a multitude of races and ethnicities, but China is similarly complicated in that way on a different scale.”
The group toured the Forbidden City, shopped in Beijing and even danced on the Great Wall of China. Both Rosa and Smith said attending a traditional Chinese tea service was a highlight of the trip.
At the tea service on the last night of their trip, Smith said the AADC dancers and Chinese students had interesting conversations about American culture and politics. They covered things like the Black Lives Matter movement and election.
“Even though they may not have access to information in the same way we do, it really changed my perspective in the way that we perceive our own political landscape,” Smith said. “China’s political system is very different from ours. They aren’t really supposed to talk about their politics. It was interesting to answer their questions about our politics.”
Smith said she thinks the questions about politics came from the AADC’s performance in Beijing. The group performed its piece, “The Anatomy of Freedom,” to an audience of about 400 people.
Smith said the piece is about how people need to re-examine history and tell the stories that were forgotten. It included ideas of oppression, the fight for freedom and reclaiming history.
“They can’t talk about political climate, so performing a piece that is really political in that space was really interesting,” Smith said. “The student partners didn’t really have any questions or anything to say about the piece. Even though they weren’t responding with ‘That’s how I feel, too,’ you can tell that people got it.”
Taking into account the exchange of culture and dance, Rosa said the trip was a success for the AADC.
“It was a really transformative experience for all of the students,” Rosa said. “Some of them have never been out of the country, or this was their first time on the plane. It was really exciting to see that students can grow from a trip like this.”