Seattle's Melody Institute teaches Chinese culture through dance, language classes
Kids in Melody Xie’s classes learn the body language of dance.
PHOTO: JOSHUA HUSTON
Our bodies tell stories through dance. Combined with traditional dress and music, dance can be a visual, physical and emotionally evocative way to share culture and history and remind someone of their roots.
This is the driving force behind the Melody Institute Chinese Language and Dance School.
Founder Melody Xie has taught traditional Chinese and folk dance to youth in the Seattle area for more than 25 years. “I find it’s a very good tool to make kids interested in culture, to learn about themselves, learn skills and learn the body language of dance,” she says.
Melody arrived in the U.S. in 1992, with her then-3-year-old daughter in tow. They joined her husband, who had made the move earlier to pursue a graduate degree in anthropology from the University of Washington. The move not only meant adapting to a new country and customs, but leaving behind a promising academic career of her own. After obtaining a degree in international business from Xiamen University, Melody had intended to pursue her Ph.D. to become a professor. She made the difficult decision to forego that path in order to devote her time to her daughter and starting their new life in the U.S.
The transition was not easy. When her daughter was 5 and enrolled in kindergarten, she was not doing well in school. She refused to speak Chinese at home, complained about her black hair and didn’t like that she looked different from her classmates. Melody feared her daughter’s behavior would negatively impact her future and tried to find an explanation for it all. As Melody says, “I found out that she lost her roots, her identity.”
At the time, Melody had recently joined a local Chinese performing-arts group. She had been dancing since age 11 and was trained in ballet and traditional Chinese dance and folk dance. Convinced that the most important thing for her daughter was to learn how to appreciate her Chinese culture, Melody considered her dance background and thought, “Maybe I can do something for her.” Since it was close to the Chinese New Year, she asked her daughter’s school if she could teach traditional Chinese dance in her class and perform for a school assembly. She taught her daughter and some of her classmates a short routine and also brought in traditional food to share. It was a success, and a real turning point for her daughter. “I gave her confidence to be proud of herself, and not imitate others,” Melody reflects.
It was a turning point for Melody as well. Soon after, she decided to incorporate dance into the Chinese language classes she was teaching at a small Chinese school in Seattle. She understood that “Asian kids are more shy, not as outgoing. This is a very good way for them to open their minds, to learn how to present themselves in front of people, and is good for the future when they find a job.”
In 2005, she started the Melody Institute, the only school in Seattle that offers a mix of Chinese dance and language classes. In 2011, she moved the school to its current location in northeast Seattle. She’s quick to point out that unlike many dance teachers who copy dance routines they see on YouTube or from other performances, she does all of her own choreography. In addition to traditional Chinese dance, she teaches China’s numerous folk and ethnic dance styles. As she says, China is a big country, and it’s important that people know its “minority and not just its majority.” Parents contribute to the cost of costumes and props that she purchases from China.
Classes are open to boys and girls between the ages of 2½ and 18. Melody also offers adult dance and exercise classes. Although many of her students are children of Chinese descent or who have been adopted from China, she welcomes students from all different ethnic backgrounds. Her program follows the Seattle Public Schools calendar, with three sessions per year; summers are off. Classes take place after school and on weekends, and last from an hour and a half to two hours. Class size is limited to 12 students.
The Melody Institute performs at several events in the greater Seattle area and is the only Chinese dance youth group that works with the Seattle Theatre Group. Her students have performed at such popular venues as the Moore Theatre and the Northwest Folklife Festival, where she is a showcase coordinator. Melody also schedules performances at nursing homes and senior centers as a way to imbue in her students the Chinese value of paying respect to your elders.
In addition to educating youth about Chinese culture and its beauty, Melody believes that dance is an effective tool to teach leadership and cooperation. In each class, she assigns a student leader to help group kids, and check on costumes and makeup. She encourages older students to try their hand at choreography. “They have to think,” she says, “instead of just learn to dance.”
PHOTO: JOSHUA HUSTON
Parent feedback has been consistently positive, emphasizing how the Melody Institute has helped their children feel connected and allowed them to explore their culture.
Piper Bronson’s two adopted daughters participated in Melody’s language and dance classes from the time they were 4 until they graduated from high school. “It was important for us to do what we could to help them maintain contact with their Chinese heritage,” says Bronson. “Over time, I realized Melody was also a mentor to the kids. That’s what I valued most.”
At 59, Melody reflects on what she has gotten out of teaching dance to youth all of these years: “Lots of people my age start to retire and wait for the end of their life. I find meaning in my life, to help people, to give them what I know and to see how happy they become. That’s the most achievement for a teacher.”
If you’re interested in learning about other cultural dance programs for youth in the Seattle area, check out some of these offerings:
Greek dance: saintdemetrios.com/community/greekdance/
Nordic folk dance: sites.google.com/site/barneleikarringen/home
Mexican folk dance: joyasmestizas.org
West African dance: kouyatearts.com/classe