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A Dancer Breaks Barriers in Ballet: Princes Can Also Be Asian

By: Amanda Yang

Chun Wai Chan, who is 30, became the first principal dancer of Chinese descent in the New York City Ballet. In its 74-year history, New York City Ballet hasn’t had a principal dancer from China. Chan is the 4th Asian to hold this rank at City Ballet.

Chan was born in Huizhou, an industrial city in southeastern China. He has a loyal fan base in his home country, having participated in the popular Chinese show “Dance Smash.” Even though he joined City Ballet only a year ago he has become one of its rising stars. Last season, Chan received praise as an elegant and very agile dancer for his performances in Jerome Robbins' “The Cage” and Justin Peck’s “Parita.” Not only that, but he has gotten a large number of followers on social media, where he posts tutorials on topics like building up abdominal muscle and how to apply makeup, and clips of his dancing.

Chan wants to help reinvent an art that is mainly found in Europe and change the usual perceptions about dancers. “I'm the first one, but I really hope it’s not going to take another 70 years to have another. Princes can be Asian, too,” he says.

When Chan was young, his parents enrolled him in swimming classes, with thoughts about Olympic aspirations. After Chan joined his sister in a ballet class, he started having other ideas about his career.

At the young age of six, Chan began studying ballet by himself and was one of a few boys in his class who had that passion. His parents, however, were skeptical of his ability and tried to encourage him to study for a different career, such as being a lawyer, doctor, or accountant.

But, when Chan was 12, he sent a letter to his parents asking him to send him to a school for performing arts, describing his determination to study dance and how he wanted to perform on the world's biggest stages. His parents finally agreed. They sent him to a boarding school in a city about 90 miles away.

Chan finally had his break when he was 18 when he became a finalist in the 2010 Prix de Lausanne in Switzerland, and then got a scholarship to Houston Ballet. He joined as a dancer for two years, then became a principal in 2017. He soon gained a reputation as a very confident and sensitive performer. He also started working with Peck, who in 2019, created “Reflections” for Houston Ballet.

In early 2020, he was offered a position as a soloist and invited to take part in a class at City Ballet. This began in the fall of 2020, but Chan would have to wait. The pandemic came, and many performances were canceled, but Chan kept busy, starting to teach online classes and recording dance videos with friends. In mid-2020, Chan went back to China, where infection rates were lower and most theaters were open. He joined the second season of “Dance Smash,” which has a variety of genres, such as traditional Chinese dance, ballet, and modern dance.

Chan's promotion came at a time when cultural institutions faced public pressure. At the time, 27% of City Ballet’s dancers identified as ethnic minorities, and now 14% in 2020. Recently a spike in violence against Asians in the United States has started discussions about the lack of Asian dancers. Many companies have tried to eliminate stereotypes, with “The Nutcracker” using bamboo hats and more stereotypical movements during routines with performers introducing tea from China.

After Chan’s performances, some of his audiences tell him that they haven’t seen Asian dancers in leading roles before. Chan has been moved to know that many young dancers think of his examples as role models for their careers. “I used to think I just danced by myself. Now I'm dancing for my family, for the audience, for the whole dance community,” Chan says.

Source: k-city-ballet.html

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