You can’t get further from China than the island of Trinidad in the Caribbean, but it was here that Dai Ailian, the pioneer of modern dance in China, was born in 1916 to a prosperous and Anglicised Cantonese family.

In this outpost of the British Empire, Dai’s introduction to dance came via Miss Walton’s ballet lessons for young ladies of good European families, plus one Chinese girl.

In her teen years, Dai’s family moved to England, where Dai studied with the best teachers. Despite her talent, no ballet troupe would take her because she was not European. Frustrated, she turned to modern dance. But here too she was denied opportunities to perform.

The world saw Dai as Chinese first and a dancer second. And so Dai began to see herself through the world’s lens. But even if she was Chinese, what could that mean to someone with no connection to China besides her appearance? She didn’t even speak the language. Was there a high Chinese dance tradition that she could learn and then they would let her perform?

Finding nothing, she decided to create her own.

Dai started choreographing dances with themes based on the Japanese occupation of China then underway. Her early efforts were clumsy, such as a dance accompanied only by the sound of chopsticks tapping against an empty rice bowl.

To further her art, Dai knew she had to go to China, war or no war, and so she did.

Happily, her arrival coincided with a moment when the communists were incorporating popular folk dances into their propaganda toolkit. Traditional harvest dances like Yangge were transformed into “struggle Yangge,” depicting the heroic struggle of China’s impoverished masses.1 As a mini-celebrity, Dai was welcomed by the communists. With communist support, Dai travelled out to the remote borderlands to record the folk dances of marginalised ethnic minorities.

Out of the material she collected, Dai created a new form of dance in China, combining traditional elements with ballet and modern dance techniques.

At last, she had the “Chinese” dance that she had been looking for in London, just in time for Mao’s new “China.”

 

Was there an element of cultural appropriation in her actions? Yes, but Dai’s knowledge of China was shallow, and even Bharatanatyam, the great “classical” dance of India, was created out of high-caste appropriations of lower-caste traditions.2

 

Did she realise that she was playing into a narrative she might not have been entirely comfortable with? Not till years later, in the midst of the Cultural Revolution, when she went up against the dreaded Jiang Qing.

For Jiang, a truly Chinese dance had to be purged of all foreign influences. But by this time, Dai’s understanding of her Chineseness had evolved. She fought for a more expansive vision, which she was able to realise in the years following the Revolution. Through her foundation, she brought dancers from all over the world to China.

Dai ultimately transcended the labels that once held her back.

In the final reckoning, her work was inspirational because above all it “was about humanity.”3