Dancing at Duke: An interview with Duke Chinese Dance

Dance culture is widespread at Duke University. As the semester comes to a close and many dance groups on campus hold their spring showcases, The Chronicle put together a look into the first five dance groups founded at Duke. Capturing their energies, their histories and their commitment through photographs and short interviews, our reporters worked to highlight this crucial part of on-campus life.

The Chronicle spoke with Duke Chinese Dance co-presidents Nancy Zhang, a junior, and James Liao, a senior, and social chair Eric Bing, a senior, about Chinese Dance's mission and involvement with both the Duke and Durham communities. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The Chronicle: Walk me through how Duke Chinese Dance was founded. 

James Liao: I believe we are one of the earliest multicultural dance groups on campus. I'm not fully sure what year or why we were founded, but I believe it was in the '90s, to create space to promote the beauty of Chinese dance and to provide an inclusive space for Chinese students to reconnect with their culture. 

TC: What is Duke Chinese Dance’s mission? 

Nancy Zhang: We are a dance-based group that strives to create a community centered around that shared interest. We're also a social community that wants to create a space for people to learn about Chinese dance and culture. 

TC: What are some special events and traditions Duke Chinese Dance has? 

Eric Bing: One of the big events we have in the fall is the family reveal, or the newbie reveal.

After auditions, we bring all the new members together to celebrate them joining the team. At this point, we also give them a chance to see all the dances and choose which ones they want to take part in. 

Every year, we also host a Friendsgiving dumpling night where we come together and make dumplings. It's very chaotic, but it usually turns out pretty well.

And then in the spring, we usually have a Lunar New Year celebration and perform at Converge. After the showcase, we have some celebrations and afterparties. We typically go to beach week as well just [to] bring it all together and celebrate the end of the year. 

JL: We are the second largest dance group on campus after Swing, and we have over 50 members.

Each year we have five dance groups. We have two main dances and we ask everyone to join at least one.

We also have two small groups, which tend to average around 10 to 15 members, to create a more close-knit community among the dancers.

Lastly, we have Open Dance, which is an opportunity for DCD members to dance with non-DCD members. It's part of our community outreach program.

TC: What is the Open Dance like? How does it help DCD to engage with the community? 

EB: The main reason why I decided to join DCD during my junior year was because of Open Dance in the spring of my sophomore year.

Up until then, I didn't know much about the group and I wasn't particularly aware of dancing at Duke. But after going to a couple [of] rehearsals, I decided I wanted to be part of the community more. [DCD] was so easy to join and they were very welcoming right off the bat.

NZ: It's also a really great way for people who aren't so sure about dance to get involved because it's just a one-semester commitment.

EB: We've had pretty good relationships with other groups on campus. Some of our groups have been invited to perform with Embodiment. I think they invited Small Group One, which is performing a K-pop piece this year, to perform with them. 

JL: Synergy and the hotpot dance crew have also invited us to perform. 

EB: In terms of [the] social scene, we also try to foster a relationship between the other dance groups.

We have hosted a few mixers this semester through which our members have gotten to know students from other dance groups. [We are] just trying to be open and as friendly as possible to other groups who share our interests and values. 

TC: Aside from the open dance performance, are there any other ways that DCD connects to the community and the general student body? 

JL: Another way we try to connect with the community is by performing at various events on campus.

Each year we audition for Converge, the Asian Multicultural Showcase. Performing at these events is kind of our way of connecting with the Duke community and spreading our love for Chinese dance.

We are also performing at Spring International, which is an International Association event.

NZ: At our showcase, we try to reach out to other dance communities within [the] Durham community as well.

We'll have some dance schools from around Durham come and perform with us. It's not like we are only present within Duke --- we also try to be present with groups outside of the school as well. At our showcase, for example, we have a few guest performances. 

TC: How does DCD approach teaching others about Chinese Dance? 

EB: When I first joined the open dance, I felt very welcomed. A lot of the members were very helpful and kind of guided me through the movements.

Open dance and main dance is a good way of introducing people to [Chinese dance]. We usually have a pretty good mix of returners who are very helpful in guiding newcomers and introducing them to dance as a whole. 

JL: Our choreographers used to be dancers in DCD, so they have acquired the best practices on how to teach Chinese dance to people who are new to our style of dance.

In general, we try to foster a very collegial, very inclusive environment. So even if you have literally zero dance experience in the past, you can still join our community. We offer extra practice for those who need to catch up with the group if needed.

NZ: Many of our members don't have any previous experience. We like to sort of advertise ourselves as a very beginner-friendly dance team for anyone who's interested in Chinese dance.

TC: How does your membership in the group affect your experience with Chinese Dance culture?

JL: I was born and raised in China, and ever since coming to North America, I felt a disconnect was my ancestral heritage. I've been looking for ways to reconnect with my country, and I think dance, as a creative outlet, has been the perfect medium for me to connect with my heritage. 

NZ:  I grew up in Kentucky which is not exactly the most diverse place. So, being a part of [DCD] has allowed me to connect with a lot of people who share a similar background with me.

It's been really nice to get to know a lot of people within the Duke community, and I've found many good friends in this space. 

EB: I was born in Texas, but I grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs. Growing up, I also felt disconnected from my culture. And especially coming to Duke, I wanted to find myself.

I ended up bouncing around a lot of different groups and social organizations. When I found Chinese dance, I realized it was a great opportunity to try something new and connect with people who share the same heritage, traditions and culture. 

TC: Is there anything else that you want to add? 

JL: Chinese dance is open to anyone. It is not important to us whether our members come from Chinese culture or Chinese background or not. What's really important is their commitment to the group and their willingness to learn Chinese dance with us. 


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