By Taste of Life

Ashley Wei talks about her childhood dream and shares stories from her life as a professional classical Chinese dancer with the New York-based Shen Yun Performing Arts Company.

At the age of 15, the tall and lithe Ashley Wei auditioned at Fei Tian Academy of the Arts, the school that trains Shen Yun dancers. The day she was accepted, she says, “marked the beginning of my life” — a life onstage, in flowing celestial costumes, showing the world traditional Chinese culture. It also abruptly suspended her career goal of becoming a biochemical engineer.

When you meet her, Wei will point out with a twinkle in her eyes that she’s a klutzy bookworm with thick glasses on her nose. You might spot her in a quiet corner of the Academy library with a Confucian classic. Her voice swells with laughter as she says, “I’m just an awkward person in general: I can look very fluid, graceful, but I trip over my own feet and drop things randomly.” The young dancer adds that she has a penchant for mathematics and science and has always had top grades. But the scholarly Wei harbored a dream in her heart to dance.

After arriving in the U.S. from China with her family at age 8, Wei attended a Chinese school on weekends, which she didn’t enjoy — though she loved the Chinese ethnic dance classes taught there. She would “persevere through those terrible Chinese lessons,” she said, to keep her mother driving her to the school so she could dance.

“After I came to Fei Tian,” she said, “the things we learned were more of classical Chinese culture, and those things appealed to me so much more. They’re so different, so fresh, and have so much depth to them.”

An important component of her training involves studying ancient Chinese classics. “We would learn all these things of the ancient people — what they would learn, and how they would think, and how they would treat their world.”

When life began

In 2008, Wei saw a Shen Yun performance with her parents. She was amazed and deeply touched by the beautiful, graceful Shen Yun dancers. It was so perfect, so stunning, she felt her dream of dance awakening.

Her parents and friends encouraged her to audition for the Fei Tian school, but Wei felt sure she wouldn’t be accepted, being so clumsy. Her awkwardness indeed followed her like a puppy to the Fei Tian audition.

She demonstrated her strength and flexibility and had the requisite long, slender body, but when doing a back bend, her glasses dropped comically to the floor, and everyone laughed. Now she felt sure her last chance was gone.

When the teachers told her that she could try one month at Fei Tian, she was shocked.

After a month, she was invited to stay, and since then, she’s been eating, sleeping and breathing classical Chinese dance in upstate New York with the company. “Before that, I was just following what seemed to be a preset path. I was just doing what I was supposed to do without knowing why.”

Chosen to tour

“When you are one of the non-touring students, sometimes you see the older girls and think, ‘Wow, I can’t believe it, this is so cool — they get to have costumes made for them, and they get to go on tour.’ I never imagined it would ever happen to me.”

But one day new members were to be chosen for touring, and the teacher and artistic director came into the classroom to pick someone.

“I was just doing my bar movements, and quietly cheering on my friend, ‘‘Oh, you can do this, you can do this! I hope you have a good time!’”

Then the teacher gestured directly at Wei.

“What?” she thought, in a daze. She followed them to another room where the touring group smiled and waved at her. “It wasn’t until later that I fully comprehended that I had been chosen,” she says.

Stunning the world

“I see everyone around me struggle [with circumstances on tour], but they try to make the best of it. Sometimes the stage floor is very hard. I see the guys cringing every time they come offstage after a flip.”

Wei and her fellow dancers become like one to create flowing scenes of ethereal beauty — graceful fairies, faithful warriors, cherry blossom groves beneath emerald mountains, and humorous stories of little monks.

“At the end, when the curtain opens one last time and you see everyone in the audience — some are still stunned, some people are wiping tears from their eyes, some people are just smiling at us, and we feel like everything is worth it. And it gives us the power to keep going,” Wei says, smiling.

Once, after their last show in Japan, Wei and a few other Shen Yun dancers went out to see the city. A couple came up to them in a food court. “They started speaking to us in Japanese, and we had no idea what they were saying… Then they pulled out tickets — they’d just watched our show,” she says.

“We were like, ‘Oh, yeah, yeah, that’s us!’ And then they bowed to us very deeply… and they said, ‘Bravo!’ and we could understand. We smiled and nodded, and then the woman bowed to us, and her husband did, too. We were just so touched by her, because she didn’t know how to express her words, but she tried so hard and had tears in her smiling eyes.”

We asked the bookworm-turned-professional dancer what she would say to people who still think about pursuing their dreams. “If your dream is an unselfish one, one that benefits others,” Wei says, “then no matter what happens, that itself will give you the power to persevere and to ultimately succeed.”

(Photos courtesy of Shen Yun)