t was 1982. In the midst of the Cold War, Chinese professional tennis player Hu Na requested political asylum while touring the United States with China’s national women’s tennis team. When she was granted asylum, China shut its doors to all American performing troupes, including the New York Philharmonic and the Salt Lake-based Ririe Woodbury group.
The only exception was the BYU Young Ambassadors. Their trip to China in 1983 instigated a relationship that would bless the lives of students on both sides of the Pacific.
Audiences waited in lines for hours to buy tickets to one of the American group’s performances. Among them was Jiamin Huang, a Beijing Dance Academy (BDA) student. She was astonished by the quality of the performance and the feelings it evoked in her.
“That was a heart-touching performance,” Huang says. “I felt a certain light when I saw them back in 1983.”
Huang says that it was this “light” that set BYU performing groups apart from other touring groups. Information about BYU and its mission wasn’t readily available at that time. Huang says because of the caliber of the performance, she and her colleagues believed the performers were from a professional dance and arts school in the United States.
“Nobody told us much about them,” Huang says, reflecting upon the experience. “All we knew was that they came from a school called Brigham Young University.”
Although Huang knew very little of the school, the name remained with her for many years after graduating from the Beijing Dance Academy.
When an opportunity presented itself more than a decade later for her husband to come to BYU, Huang’s memory of the Young Ambassadors’ performance prompted them to accept.
“My husband got a scholarship through a Chinese funder and decided to come to BYU to finish his graduate degree,” Jiamin says. “At the time, I was a professor at the BDA. But I decided to join my husband here in Provo.”
Huang soon began studying at BYU to pursue her master’s degree in dance.
Her experience with the Beijing Dance Academy and BYU inspired Huang to begin a cultural exchange program to strengthen the relationship between the two institutions. BYU faculty began visiting Beijing to give lectures while dance educators and administrators from all over China were invited to visit Provo for a two-week workshop where more than 50 courses were offered.
Among those Chinese educators who were impressed by BYU was Wang Wei, BDA. Wei says that connecting with BYU represented a turning point in her life.
“It makes me willing to be good,” Wei says of BYU. “It causes me to rethink my life with noble ideas, knowledge and attitudes. Gradually, I learned to be happy with faith.”
After graduating, Huang was soon invited to join BYU’s dance faculty where she began sharing her talents with other students.
Through her work, Huang has shared that light she sensed during her first encounter with BYU in 1983 with many others in China. As diplomatic tensions eased, BYU dance companies began crossing over to China on a regular basis.
The relationship that has developed between BYU and the Beijing Dance Academy reached a new level in 2013 when the two institutions collaborated on “Encounters,” a cross-cultural dance performance at the renowned National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing.
The performers united their talents to showcase and celebrate different cultures merging in one production. The participants were delighted to discover that relationship transcended the performance stage.
Logan McGill, a performer in Contemporary Dance Theatre, says his favorite part of the trip was the relationship that was formed between students from the two schools.
Logan McGill and Mathew Davies perform on the stage of the National Centre for the Performing Arts
“It was amazing to be able to learn more about their culture and being able to mix our worlds for a short period of time,” McGill says. “It was incredible that despite the language barrier between us, we were able to communicate through our body language and our actions, which allowed us all to become friends with one another.”
Wei also notes with satisfaction the relationships formed between individuals from her institution and from BYU.
“In just one hour of dancing on the same stage, all the disparities and tensions were gone,” Wei says. “They kept talking and hugging and looked like they were from one family. This is the magic of human interaction.”
Mentoring the Next Generation
The legacy of cross-culture mentoring has continued as Huang recently began training Michelle Xu, a Beijing Dance Academy student visiting BYU for a year. Xu says that although it is common for teachers to take on students abroad, Huang is unique in her skills and motivation.
“She is enthusiastic about her work,” Xu says of Huang. “Not many professors can do the detailed things that she has done.”
Speaking for the other students who have benefited from Huang’s efforts to bridge the eastern and western cultures, Xu says she hopes Huang’s work will only be the beginning of bigger and better things in the future between the BDA and BYU.
“Right now the world is so integrated,” Xu says. “We must share things with other countries. We need to learn different cultures to support our own culture and education.”
Huang says she hopes all educators will learn the valuable lesson of cooperation.
“I feel that we, as educators, need to offer more opportunities to our students to share our culture and to see the world,” Huang says.
For their part, BYU and the Beijing Dance Academy have positioned themselves to rise to that aspiration. The two institutions have agreed to continue the cultural exchange that began more than 30 years ago by the Young Ambassadors and will bless students for generations to come.