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TCU Magazine "Academe"
Articles:  Cultivating an identity | Rock around the clock

On their toes

For a group of Taiwanese dance instructors on campus for a year, a leg-up in the Far East dance world calls for a master's -- and a lot of fancy footwork -- on this side of the globe.

By Nancy Bartosek

With the click of a remote control, cultures quietly converged in a sweltering upper room of the Ballet Building this summer: Three Australian aborigines stomped out a centuries-old ritual on a television monitor. The screen split and European ballerinas leapt toward them with classical grace.

And off-screen in this dance studio, nine Taiwanese students, still sweating from a vigorous workout, frantically toke notes in Chinese while their translator, a Taiwanese native who lives and teaches in Denton, explained the gist of the juxtaposition for Kerry Kreiman, their English-speaking instructor.

The show ended and the group dragged to their feet. Start with flick and slash, Kreiman said as the music began to blare. Arms and legs cut forcefully through the air. A finger brushed away a drop of imaginary sweat, another picked off a pretend bit of dust with great aplomb as the group gyrated through space.

Dance. Like love, it's an international language. No words needed to make profound points.

And though Kreiman may not speak their language, and few of them hers, through daily contact she's come to know quite a bit about these dancers who think a TCU master's degree is worth a year away from home.

Words like courage, dedication, ambition, determination and bravery drop from the lips of Kreiman and others who are teaching these professional dancers, all of whom are over the age of 30.

And it's not just lip service: They've left behind families, homes and secure positions in Taiwan to study and dance 18 hours a day in a language they've barely spoken and in a place they've never seen. Factor in, too, they'll be paying for a year's room and board with no guarantee of a job upon their return.

"Isn't it brave?" queried ballet and modern dance chair Ellen Garrison. "It's a special group that has the guts and motivation to go back to school for an advanced degree in a new country."

TCU dance faculty members knew of the slim chance teachers in Taiwan had to earn a master's degree, so they developed a special program last year, originally to be taught mostly in Taiwan, and in the students' own tongue. But Taiwanese government officials required that the students come to the United States to complete the coursework.

The program was revised and arrived stateside to include translators and special language concessions in assignments. The students' theses will be written in Chinese and then translated, for example. The modified degree, said Modern Dance Assistant Prof. Susan Douglas Roberts, allows the students to focus on the knowledge in the degree rather than on the language.

I-Shiang Liu, one of the students, owns a dance studio in Taipei which someone is running while she's gone. She's 38, but getting her MFA is a priority.

"My students are waiting for me," she said, admitting to serious homesickness three weeks into her stay. "I will learn a lot of new things about professional dance that I can take back to them. And hopefully I can improve myself so I can give more to my students."

Liu speaks in broken but understandable English; she spent two years in Hong Kong earning a bachelor's degree, honing her English in the process. But most in the group have studied only a little English in junior high; the campus' Intensive English classes are helping, but not quickly enough, Liu said.

"The work is very heavy," she said. "The first week we almost did not sleep." The research methods class that began when they arrived required daily assignments that had to be researched in the library -- all in English. The translating computers they brought helped, but the work is still tedious.

Language is not the only barrier. In Taiwan, the teacher talks, the students listen, said Yuh-Ching Lin, 35, one of the two men in the group and an assistant dance teacher at a university. He says, through his classmate Liu, that in Taiwan everything students need to know comes from the lectures. No class discussions or questions. "You just sit and listen," he said, moving his body into the submissive stance of an attentive student.

These American teachers. They pose questions. Expect questions in return. Demand you find answers in the library. "You must think how to do it," Yeh said with an exasperated look. "Everything is think, think, think." Or dance, dance, dance. Either way, the sacrifice will be worth it for these students who haven't been to school for at least a decade.

"These people are the cream; they are from major, important organizations in their country and will go back and share what they've learned," said Garrison, adding that the Taiwanese will likely take part in public performances later this year. "It's just a giant, consciousness-raising experience."