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Chinese Group Doesn’t Dance by the Book

Like most 29-year-olds, the Chinese Folk Dance Assn. of San Francisco, which appears Saturday and Sunday at the University of Judaism, has gone through a lot of changes.

In its infancy, the association consisted of a few Chinese and Chinese-American students who thought that dance could lead to a better understanding of their heritage. But back in 1959 there weren’t a lot of Chinese dance teachers in San Francisco. Books were the slow but effective substitute.

“At first the group could only learn one dance per year,” said Anne Woo, who has been with the group since 1962 and was its principal dancer until she became executive director 8 years ago. “After 10 years, there were 10 dances.”

By 1971, the group was able to put on its first full-scale, 2-hour show. The members found that there was an intense curiosity about Chinese culture but because of that country’s closed-door policy there weren’t a lot of opportunities for Americans to get even a glimpse of the Chinese arts. The group was heretofore much in demand and spent a heady adolescence performing at colleges and festivals for enthusiastic audiences.

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After U.S.-Sino relations improved, association members were able to visit China and find out how the dances they had learned from books were performed there. They established ties with other groups in China, which in turn visited the United States. The dancers were able to study with some of China’s best dance masters and acquire authentic costumes and music.

The Chinese “were so surprised that we were doing all the dances that they were doing . . . and doing them pretty well,” Woo said. “It was funny too that a lot of the dancers from China were anxious to learn modern dance, while we were trying to learn the classical, authentic folk dances. It was like our own cultural exchange.”

Today the association’s shows regularly feature some of China’s best dance soloists. One of China’s most acclaimed choreographers, Huang Bo-Shou, structured several dances for the group.

But the group is not a carbon copy of ensembles that perform in China.

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“American audiences expect different things than Chinese audiences,” Woo said. “Chinese groups typically have lots of pretty girls and a peaceful but kind of slow beat. We have more action and faster beats. It’s a combination of the gracefulness of Oriental dance but with an upbeat presentation. And lately we have been trying to choreograph our own dances.”

No more books for this group. And no more exact copies of everything Chinese. The Chinese Folk Dance Assn. of San Francisco has grown up.

This weekend’s shows will feature 11 different dances, some traditional, others, like “The Silkworm,” a blend of modern dance, gymnastics and Chinese dance techniques. All of the dances tell stories, from “Celestial Paradise,” which re-enacts a day with Buddhist angels, to “Dance of the Coral,” an excerpt from the dance drama, “The Mermaid.”

The Chinese Folk Dance Assn. of San Francisco appears at the University of Judaism, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Los Angeles, on Saturday, Nov. 12 at 8:30 p.m. and Sunday, Nov. 13 at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $18 for preferred seating; $12.50 for general admission. Reservations are required; call (213) 476-9777 for information.


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