Some of Western Australia’s most experienced dance teachers of all styles share their stories of success, failure and overcoming adversity.

Jen Nie Chong is a Chinese dance teacher at the Chung Wah Association in Northbridge, which will be celebrating its 110th anniversary this year. She describes the unique origins of the six main dance styles, props, Lion dancing, and how for many people, dance is a part of daily life.

My name is Jen Nie Chong. I teach and learn Chinese cultural dance.

I’ve been dancing since I was six years old. When I was younger, my mum was the principal of the first Chinese language school in Perth. I was born in Perth actually. But my family’s from Malaysia. Their family is originally from China.

I went to Chinese class, Mandarin language class, every Saturday morning for two hours, and as an extracurricular activity they had Chinese dancing, so that’s where I started learning Chinese dancing. I think I’ve pretty much learned solidly since that age. I’ve also done other styles as well, so I started doing ballet and—yeah, mainly ballet, a bit of contemporary dance, just as extra.

I first started teaching at the Chinese school on a Saturday, so I’ve been doing it all along. Then I was leading our group at Chung Wah here, and then I started teaching at the Chinese schools, different schools in Parkwood. I taught there for many years. And now I’m teaching at a primary school—Oberthur Primary School, they have a Chinese immersion program where they do six and a half hours of Chinese language every week, and as extracurricular activity they have Chinese dancing before school.

Types of Dance

Well, there’s actually fifty-six minority groups, I think, in China, there are six major styles of Chinese dance, and the most common one would be the Han classical style. There’s Xin Jiang, which is in the west, western China, and there’s Mongolian, also Tibetan, and Korean, and Dai dance, d-a-i. So there’d be four, five, six major styles, so if you’re learning Chinese dance, you would learn these six styles.

For us it’s more of an extracurricular activity, so we did mainly Han style, so we do mainly our fans, ribbons, umbrellas, because Chinese dance uses a lot of props. So we do all of those things but we also did some of these other styles like Xin Jiang or Mongolian. Those styles are really different depending on what region they’re from.

Jen Nie sits on the floor with her skirt flared out. The skirt has peacock eyes on it, and she wears a feather on her head. Her fingers are posed gracefully like a peacock head.
Jen Nie performing the peacock dance.

So, if you’re doing Tibetan, it’s more mountainous, so the movement’s more hunched, because, they’re like, they’re going up the mountain, the air’s really thin, it’s hard to breathe, they’re carrying lots of stuff, so the movements will be more like this [she hunches her back]. Then there’s Mongolian, that’s on the grasslands, so it’s more about riding horses and the hands will be like this [she holds her hands as if holding reins], with horses and stuff like that, so it’s all different styles depending on the region.

The peacock dance, it’s a long dress and it’s got peacock eyes on it, and the Tibetan one has long sleeves. So, there’s different costumes based on the area they are from. And the costumes are usually like stage costumes, colourful, bright, sequins. These days the costumes have become a bit more modern, by showing a bit more midriff and things like that, but not all. Some of ours are like that, these days, they become a bit more contemporary, so the traditional costumes, I guess like Bollywood as well, they become a bit more, like, showing the midriff and all that. So yeah. But it’s still the traditional style.

Lion Dancing

I used to be in the lion dance group as well. It’s based on martial arts—so all the movements—you’ve got to have a strong martial arts base to be able to do lion dance.

Well, I used to do it, but I never learnt martial arts. But you’ve got to be quite strong, and you have to be able to do the, like, the horse stance [she gets up and stands in a squat-like position with legs wide apart]. So you need to be strong to do all that stuff, but the lion actually moves like that, like a martial arts movement.

And the way the lion dance actually started was—I think there was this monster that came down from the hills every year, and it was called Nian, which means ‘year’.

So, they started making loud noises, setting off firecrackers, to scare away this monster, using the lion, in the end.

So, I believe that’s the story. Yeah, making loud noises chases away evil spirits, brings good fortune, that type of thing.

Challenges and Achievements

In Australia, I think my struggle would be finding places to learn. And also, if I wanted to do things like a Chinese dance exam or a curriculum or syllabus, we don’t really have that here. As well as finding good teachers.

Well, I’ve produced a dance theatre. It was to celebrate the hundred-year anniversary for Chung Wah Association and it was called, ‘New Gold Mountain’. And that was what Chinese people used to call Australia when they first came here [due to the Gold Rush].

So that was a dance theatre I produced, and our group, the Chung Wah dance group, performed in it, but I produced it. The Chung Wah Association was founded in 1909, so if you have a look downstairs at the plaque next to the door, you can see (it says) 1909. So this year celebrates a hundred and ten anniversary.

Jen Nie, a middle-aged Australian-Chinese woman, dances with two red fans that sail through the air. She wears all red.
Jen Nie performing with fans.

Reflecting on Dance: Present and Future

For the children that I teach, one group is doing a red lantern dance for Chinese New Year, and the other group is doing a dance with ribbons and also fans. They mainly learn the Han style of dances, because the costumes mainly use the more Han style costume which is like, the Chinese collar, the top and pants, a samfu, that’s just a top and pants.

So, they’d mainly perform for their school assemblies, celebrations. That group gets invited to perform at other places like the Chinese Consulate, and other occasions. So, it’s good that all of them are interested to learn Chinese dance, and they’re not all Chinese as well. There are other kids, Caucasian kids, who are learning Chinese and they still come and do dance. Yeah, it’s really good, and quite unusual to see them dancing Chinese dance.

A lot of people try to make Chinese dance a bit more modern, more mainstream—mixing different styles, like fusion, hip hop and Chinese dance.

I think it’s similar to other dance styles. Also, a lot of older ladies like to do Chinese dancing. They like to do it in the streets or in the courtyard, you know. They’ll just be dancing around, they do it for exercise, and some of them will hold fans. But it’s not really traditional Chinese dancing; it’s more, I don’t know, dancing in the courtyard, is their kind of dance.

I think they just do it for exercise, you can watch these ladies, I think they’re doing the whole fan thing. But the style we do is more choreographed; I think some of the ones that they do would be more like line dancing, you know, where they do similar steps each side, that type of thing. But it’s popular amongst old ladies and now we have a lot of Chinese dance groups in Perth.

But our association actually has four Chinese language schools now, we’ve got aged care, which does quite well, and we’ve got all of our cultural groups; we’ve actually got lion and dragon dancing, we’ve got Chinese orchestra as well, they play the traditional instruments, and then women’s groups, yeah, we’ve got dragon boat team, lion dance team—it’s a lot of cultural groups.

View a video of Jen Nie dancing here.

A group of women in pink silk tops and pants leap gracefully around the stage waving their fans above their heads.
Jen Nie and her class performing a fan dance.
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