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Dancing to the Street

Xin Ying, principal dancer of Martha Graham Dance Company, has been making improvised dances wherever her work takes her. The simply framed videos quickly became a highlight of Instagram. Often set in tourist hubs, busy streets and danced to ambient sound, her swift, modern movement strikes a contrast with the pedestrian setting. Originally from China, Ying moved to New York almost a decade ago to pursue her dream of becoming a modern dancer.

Xin Ying, principal of Martha Graham Dance Company, improvises in New York.

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FR: When did you start dancing?

XY: I was a very energetic kid and I liked to perform since I was two years old. My mom wanted to channel my energy into something so she sent me to piano lessons first. She realized pretty quickly it wasn’t the right fit when she saw me falling asleep in class. After that, she took me to meet a local dance teacher to see if I had any potential. I don’t know why but I was really determined to get into her class. The teacher saw how badly I wanted it and let me into the class after I gritted through some of her flexibility tests. I was only about six years old at the time and much younger than most of the other students. I’ve been dancing ever since.

Growing up in China, we didn’t have much but my mom did everything she could to support my dancing. She saved everything she earned and sent me to an arts high school in another town. When I was 15, I passed the college entrance exam in China and got into Nanjing University of the Arts. My mom supported me skipping my last couple years of high school and put me all the way through college.

FR: When did you realize you wanted to dance professionally?

XY: After my first dance class, I vividly remember telling myself “I will become a dancer.” But after college, the first job I took was as a teacher at a local art college in Sichuan. This is pretty typical in China because teaching is considered a much better career path that of a professional dancer. I had almost given up my dream of being a dancer until a fateful day in 2008 when our home in Sichuan was hit by a very bad earthquake. That event taught me that life can be short and unpredictable and it motivated me to pursue my dream. Shortly after, I applied for the Martha Graham School.

FR: When did you move to New York, and what were your impressions once you arrived?

XY: I arrived in New York City in 2010 to study at the Graham School. I remember walking through Midtown area because the first place I stayed was near 34th and 8th. At that time I barely spoke any English but it felt like a place of unlimited possibilities, just like all the movies I’d grown up watching. I felt like I was reborn as my own person in New York.

FR: What attracted you to Martha Graham Dance Company?

XY: I wanted to learn true modern dance and Martha Graham is where it all starts. Her technique makes me feel powerful. It’s so honest and it makes me proud to just be myself. I never feel more real than when I dance Graham’s pieces.

FR: How did you start the improv videos?

XY: My husband and I were in Chengdu, Sichuan visiting family a couple of years ago. We had a few drinks and were walking around when I decided to improv on the street with him filming on a phone. From that point on, I started doing improv videos wherever I go, whenever the mood strikes!

FR: What has been your career highlight so far, and what are your hopes for the future (in dance or otherwise)?

XY: My highlight is dancing at the National Centre Performing Arts in Beijing. It’s considered the most important stage in China and it was always a dream to perform there and have my mom in the audience. When I first moved to New York it was hard for her to understand why I would leave my stable teaching job to pursue modern dance and it put a real strain on our relationship for the first few years.

When she saw me on that stage as the principal dancer for this incredible company she was beaming with pride. It felt like we’d finally made it. Needless to say, she couldn’t be happier for me now!

There are lots of exciting things on the horizon. I hope to keep challenging myself as a Graham dancer and learning from Janet Eilber, our amazing artistic director. I’ll be choreographing more—this summer I’m expanding a piece I created for Lauren Post’s CoLab project with some incredible ABT dancers. I also hope to keep moving modern dance forward in China through lectures and workshops. Later this year, I’ll be opening a dance center in Shanghai that will be a home base for the work I’m doing there. Stay tuned for more info on that.

And of course, I’ll be doing improvs wherever I go!

Penelope Ford


Penelope is the founding editor of Fjord Review, international magazine of dance and ballet. Penelope graduated from Law and Arts with majors in philosophy and languages from the University of Melbourne, Australia, before turning to the world of dance. She lives in Italy.

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