Choreographer shares adventures in China

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Choreographer shares adventures in China

Aleta Hayes learns about Chinese dance, shares 'Liquid Flow' dance philosophy during U.S. State Department/Embassy of Beijing-sponsored cultural exchange

by Lelia Glass on Thursday, January 30, 2014 - 10:14am

Clayman audience trying dance exercise“Start down at the floor,” Aleta Hayes told the audience at Stanford’s Clayman Institute. “Think of a flower – a specific one. Now, standing on one leg, extend and bloom into that flower, at your maximum reach.”

Hayes -- a dancer, choreographer, artist and Stanford lecturer – used the same exercise with her dance students at Beijing Normal University. As one of seven choreographers selected to win a State Department grant, she traveled to Beijing in December 2013 to learn and teach dancing. On January 23, she shared her international story at the Clayman Institute’s Winter Quarter Salon.

"I wasn’t sure if Liquid Flow would work in a different culture"

Hayes’s host university was Beijing Normal University (BNU), and her translator was a graduate student. As a busy student, the translator was unable to take Hayes to the tourist sites, which were far from BNU. Meanwhile, Hayes had a heavy teaching schedule. Her students had said they just wanted to learn new steps – lots of them. Hayes’s trip looked like it was going to be very constrained.

Hayes and audienceBut Hayes turned the trip into an adventure. Instead of teaching new steps, she decided to share her unique philosophy of dance, Liquid Flow – the one she uses with her Stanford movement band, The Chocolate Heads.  Liquid Flow is a meditative, exploratory way of moving, illustrated in the flower exercise Hayes shared with the Clayman Institute audience.  It is an attempt to distill the fundamentals of dance and recombine them in a new way. 

“I wasn’t sure if Liquid Flow would work in a different culture,” Hayes said. Her students, who were preparing to work as dance teachers, were very serious.  As trained dancers, they moved gracefully, “but they’re not liquid here,” she said, pointing to her head.

But after a few lessons, she saw them start to explore new ideas with their bodies.

"Their feet were beating like drums"

Then it was Hayes’s turn to explore. A young woman named Jia Jia Tong – a lecturer and dance scholar at Peking University – came to see Hayes at BNU. “We were twins from across the globe,” Hayes said.


Jia Jia took Hayes on a tour of Beijng. She didn’t just show Hayes the tourist sites – the Temple of Heavenly Peace, the Forbidden City. Jia Jia also pointed out “the grandmas” – older women who congregated in parks to dance to boom boxes, combining Chinese folk dance with moves they found on YouTube. She showed Hayes the calligraphers who would write characters with water instead of ink as an exercise in contemplation. Hayes thought these people embodied the principles of creativity and tranquility -- the principles of flow -- that she wants to convey to her students around the world.

Next, Jia Jia took Hayes to see traditional Han dancers at TianJin University. “Their arms were like scarves, swimming through the air,” she said. “At the same time, their feet were beating like drums.” The performance moved her to tears.

HayesAs Hayes learned more about China, she stared to understand what her students needed, and it wasn’t new steps. Since China has fifty-two ethnic minorities, many different regions, and many historical eras of dance, “they have more steps than they know what to do with,” she said. 

Instead, Hayes strived to teach them “the contemporary mindset of remixing and reinventing – like the grandmas.”

Before Hayes returned to the US, one of her students came to her and said, “Since I was a little girl, I’ve been told ‘Do this, do that.’  Now, I feel what to do from the inside.”

A Hayes
Aleta Hayes
Lecturer, Contemporary Dance and Performance, Stanford Dance

Aleta Hayes is a dancer, choreographer, performer and Stanford faculty member in the Dance Division in the Department of Theater and Performance Studies. After completing a B.A. at Stanford, Ms. Hayes received an M.F.A. at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.  She has written, directed, choreographed, and performed many major performances; most recently, she received a grant from the U.S. State Department to share her choreography and pedagogy and in China.

L Glass
Lelia Glass
PhD student in Linguistics

Lelia Glass is a second-year PhD student in Linguistics at Stanford, focusing on semantics, pragmatics, and sociolinguistics.  She is a member of the Clayman Institute's Student Writing Team.