Culture and IdentityHomeThe Creativity Issue

Dancing Through Stereotypes

By March 15, 2019 76 Comments

By: Delphine Chang

I was born in the vibrant, eclectic, and beautiful city of Kaohsiung, Taiwan. I was inspired by the city’s dynamic culture from the moment I could walk. I have blurred memories of our apartment, eating nori, and our little bird Tikki Tikki Tembo who was named after the book by Arlene Mosel. My dad is Taiwanese and my mom is white. They gave birth to two daughters before moving back to America. We girls were lucky to have been exposed to two very different cultures from the beginning and our upbringing wasn’t traditional in any sense. We received a well-balanced background of both Asian and American culture. To my sister and I, we loved it. We counted down with New York as the ball dropped on New Year’s Eve, yet also received red envelopes for the Lunar New Year. It meant double the fun and occasions for us. Yet we never thought about some realities of being Asian-American women. I didn’t inherit all of the stereotypical Asian characteristics like my sister did. My nose is not flat, I’m quite tall, and although I have almond shaped eyes, my crease is still relatively pronounced. With that said, I cannot truly speak for the countless Asian women who face the stereotypes perpetuated by the American society we live in. What I can do, however, is articulate my experiences as a Taiwanese-American woman caught in the concept of Americentrism.

             We all know the stereotypes of Asian men, that they are technologically savvy, smart, nerdy, short, etc. etc. Women, on the other hand, take that overachieving, book smart stereotype but are often hypersexualized and deemed submissive. To contrast, many media portrayals show Asian women as aggressive and borderline avaricious. This juxtaposition leads to a damaging and paradoxical representation of Asian women. At home, many are told to be elegant, articulate, but quiet. Do as you’re told and don’t speak up unless instructed to. I am lucky enough to be surrounded by very strong Asian women who aren’t afraid to speak their mind and I grew up in a household that encouraged this sentiment. These individuals that surround me have endorsed my voice in this whitewashed world.

I’ve always been shy and creative. I look back at pictures in Taiwan, naked, covered in nori, and running around with a paint brush. My upbringing was intrinsically artistic, beginning with traditional Chinese dance at the age of three and attending art schools my whole life. I quickly moved into Indian dance because of a childhood friend. I’d have many friends ask about Bollywood when told about my dance classes. I could see the light fade slowly and excitement die down as I said: “No, traditional Indian dance”. I never realized that ambivalent tone and skepticism as the word “traditional” was brought up. I am in no way invalidating the value of Bollywood dance, but instead edifying the cultural disinclination of American culture to more traditional forms of dance. I had no time to fully immerse myself in the complexities of Indian dance for I was soon swept up by the world of ballet, which has its own stigmas and standards.

The ballet world idealizes a certain body type and look. When thinking of Asian ballet dancers, other conventions materialize. I’ve been constantly compared to the slender, hypermobile stereotype of Asian ballerinas. Although tall and relatively slender, I was considered a strong body type. In normal terms that is a good thing. In the dance world, that often goes against the unrealistic body standard of many dancers. Although that world and ideals are slowly changing, I did not perpetuate the correct image as a Chinese ballerina. I still find myself envying the naturally flexible, thin, and long bodied Asian dancers so often seen in the media. As dancers, we’re all inherently perfectionists, it comes with the sixteen plus years of staring at yourself in the mirror picking out flaws. That precision comes down to the very placement of each individual finger and angle of the head. It can be mathematical and systematic while still needing to maintain a certain level of artistry. These intricacies have made me truly admire dancers as athletes and artists. However, these complexities come with a slew of challenges.

The perfectionist in me has come out in other aspects of life and allowed me to be successful in many areas both socially, academically, and professionally. While there is nothing wrong with wanting greatness and setting goals for yourself, my issue surrounds the word “perfection”. Not only can striving for perfection be detrimental to your mental health, especially as a dancer, but it is an unrealistic standard that no individual can attain. I have been told to “stop being perfect”, “you’re perfect”, or a variation of that. Although meant as a complimentary statement and hearing that feels amazing in the moment, it underscores a problematic issue that intersects with mental health. Although some may write off these phrases as making nothing out of a compliment, it truly adds to the mental game of life and dance. I already hold myself to an impossibly high standard, and when told that I am perfect, I want to maintain that facade. But that’s all it is, an attempt at burying the humanity in an individual and replacing it with an automated adaptation of a being. I am far from perfect, I struggle heavily with body image, I have anxiety, if things don’t go my way, I often freak out. This concept of perfection is a deprecatory mentality. The verbalization of perfect is an elusive concept that isn’t quantifiable. The thing about emotions and thoughts is they all occur quietly. This silence goes back to the embedded sentiments of well-behaved, mannered Asian stereotypes. The humanistic qualities that we all possess are what make art and dancers so magnetic. That light behind the eyes of an artist is what mesmerized me from the start and continues to draw in generations of enchanted viewers and participators.

          “Open your eyes”. You don’t know how many times I’ve been told that. I’ve known girls that work for hours on their makeup to fit the Westernized ideal of bigger eyes. The truth is, I understand what my dance teachers mean by this phrase. They are missing something from my performance that can’t solely be communicated through my movement and body. Yet these three words intersect with an institutionalized model of westernized beauty. It’s not about altering that standard but instead engendering a collective acknowledgment of various eye sizes, faces, bodies, minds etc. It’s about recognizing the delicacies and magnitude of a seemingly harmless phrase. It’s about realizing that “open your eyes” asserts a convergence of women, race, and self-perception that ultimately leads to criticism.

You don’t need to employ modesty or propriety to gain respect. That not only relates to dance but also to all aspects of the world. Don’t feel like you need to have something particularly profound to say. I know I am often afraid of speaking out or putting myself out there in dance because confidence in women is often misconstrued as pretension. Let’s change that. As a woman in a creative field, I believe that art can give a voice to those that can’t always articulate something with words. Let’s form a new stereotype of bold, vivacious, authentic Asian women who aren’t afraid to speak up.

 

Delphine Chang was born in Kaohsiung, Taiwan before moving to America at the age of four. She is a student at the University of Arizona majoring in Dance with a minor in Arts Management. She has always had an inclination towards all facets of the arts. She currently the College of Fine Arts Ambassador president and loves to encourage all artistic endeavors through philanthropic and social event programming. She has a side business, Alrescha Co., with one of her best friends that is dedicated to promoting self-care, blasting beauty standards, and normalizing nudity through art. Delphine hopes to continue to use these platforms to show that women are powerful and have a voice too.

Find Delphine and Alrescha Co. here:

Instagram: @delphinenais

Instagram: @shopalrescha

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