Yin He Dance Company celebrates Chinese art and culture through classical, modern movement

Five years ago, dance teacher Hana Liu realized that two of her youngest students weren’t happy with their skills.

At about 6 years old, the two had just started taking dance classes at Yin He Dance, a Chinese dance company in Chicago. They weren’t very flexible yet — but one classmate was, Liu said, and she could feel her frustration.

Go home and stretch, Liu told them, and “you’ll do it too.”

One day they walked in and she asked, “Did you stretch?”

“Yes,” they replied. And she could see her progress.

Judy Liu of Yin He Dance Company performs “Love Of Lotus” at Free Family Fun Days at Navy Pier.

“Knowing that they really care enough about stretching themselves was something that made me realize the rewards of this job,” said Liu, an instructor and dancer at Yin He, whom she still calls five years later student has.

Her story exemplifies what Yin He means to her, Liu said, “Dance is for everyone.”

This has been a core philosophy of Yin He since the beginning, said Angela Tam, the company’s co-founder, choreographer, instructor, costume designer and dancer. She formed the group in 2015 with dancer Dollie Diaz and Amy Xie. They performed together for years under teacher Jin Qiuyue in a pre-professional dance group called Little Star – Xiao Xing Xing in Chinese.

Soon, Jin was about to retire, and the three dancers realized they weren’t just “kids playing around,” Tam said, but “pretty good.” They formed their own group and called it Yin He. Inspired by Little Star, Yin He means Milky Way in Chinese. They wanted it to be accessible and collaborative for everyone.

They found Liu and another dancer from the University of Chicago to boost their public performances. Tam said they have done many performances in the neighborhood, especially in Chinatown.

Angela Tam - Co-Founder, Choreographer, Dance Instructor and Artistic Director of Yin He Dance Company.

Angela Tam – Co-Founder, Choreographer, Dance Instructor and Artistic Director of Yin He Dance Company.

The next step was the opening of the Yin He Dance Center. Yin He opened its own space in January 2017 and began offering courses with only four students in the first month.

“That was pretty sad,” Tam said.

Yin He now has about 60 students. It also has five dancers and two trainees who perform several times a year, presenting classical Chinese dances, folk dances and contemporary dances, Tam said.

One of her favorites was 2019 and early 2020. Tam said the group performed a dance called “Flying Kites.” Originally choreographed in 1953, it became popular with dance companies in China. It shows a group of young women flying kites – symbolized by fans held by each dancer. They move to take pictures with their fans – in the middle of the dance they make a butterfly. Kites are a visual art form in China, Tam said. It’s very elaborate, and the dance is considered folkloric.

Brianna Tong (left) and instructor Hana Liu from Chicago's Yin He Dance Company perform

Brianna Tong (left) and instructor Hana Liu of Chicago’s Yin He Dance Company perform “Playing the Pipa in Reverse” at a recent event at Navy Pier.

Folk dances are fun, Liu said — festive, upbeat, and powerful. And anyone can do them, said Tam.

“It would be in a small town during a holiday celebration, all the people in town would just get together and do this dance in the town square,” Tam said.

Classical requires more training, Liu said. It was developed in the mid-20th century and draws on Chinese martial arts, Chinese opera, Chinese folk dance, ballet, and paintings and sculptures of ancient dancers.

“It involves a lot of control over how you move,” Liu said, “but also the possibility of having no control. Controlling your body, but also being relaxed.”

Lam also choreographs dances for the troupe. In 2018 she created a dance inspired by the #MeToo movement. A similar hashtag with the same pronunciation but a different meaning was circulating in China. In Chinese, “mi” means rice and “tu” means rabbit, so people used the hashtag “rice rabbit”.

The dance drew inspiration from contemporary and classical dance, using wave imagery to convey a sense of women uplifting one another.

When Tam co-founded Yin He Dance, the founders felt it was important to do both traditional and contemporary dances because “culture is always changing.

“I like to tell people, this isn’t your grandmother’s Chinese dance — but so do we,” Tam said.

Liu started dancing when she was 4 years old. Her mother sent her to a community center for classical Chinese dance classes. But she didn’t like it and quit in the eighth grade and went back to it years later.

Liu said she now looks back and understands some of the aspects of her dance classes that repelled her and tries to help her students understand that.

“Dance is suitable for all ages and all body types,” said Liu. “It’s not designed for flexibility.”

She said Yin He teachers also talk a lot with their students about confidence – what they can take beyond dance.

She hopes her students will be proud “of what they do and how far they’ve come from when they started.”

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