Chinese Folk Dance Association's free classes link generations in Bay Area

For dancers with the Chinese Folk Dance Association (CDFA), every movement is about connecting to culture and heritage. 

"Each dance has a story to tell, a story that follows it with the music and then the movements, that's like the part that I really enjoy about dance," said Amanda Lee, a dancer.

CFDA Chairperson Simon Tsui said there is a lot of variation in the dances, explaining that for [the] "Chinese, [there are] 56 minority groups, and it's so unique. Each one has their own culture, music and so forth."

He put his children in dance lessons when they were young because "I want my girls to do at the very beginning, is to know as much Chinese culture as possible." 

Today, he also takes adult classes.

The CDFA is one of the oldest organizations of its kind. It started in San Francisco's Chinatown 65 years ago and was created as a way for generations to connect. 

"I think having Chinese dance because it's not something readily available, it's hard to find. It's just nice to have to give them that space to sort of learn about themselves and to be able to grow. Because being a kid nowadays, I used to imagine how tough it is," said teacher Sabrina Wong.

Maritza Hy, who danced at the school as a child and now teaches herself, said she likes the sisterhood and companionship the program provides, alongside learning about her roots. 

Today, that connection comes at no cost. Every Saturday, a dance room is filled hour after hour with children and even adults learning to dance. 

"There are a lot of Chinese dance schools in the Bay Area, but we're free…and in the community. Most of our children, our girls, come from immigrant families and their families. And parents really want them to share a group, share a little bit of the culture, keep a little bit of their culture, because they are born here, and they may not be able to afford the high, high, tuition of other schools" said CFDA Executive Director Fred Wu.

Most of these dancers have been here for years. Twelve years ago, Lee was at school when she saw a performance. 


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"I was at my elementary school, and there was this girl who was performing Chinese folk dance, and I was like, 'Oh my God, that's super pretty. I want to do that too,'" said Lee. 

That is about the time Nicki Lao's mother found the CFDA too for her daughter.

"It seems like a really good way to spend my Saturday. And I was also not very connected with my culture, with my parents living here…I was like, ‘Oh, this might kind of seem like a cool way to kind of connect with them,'" said Lao.

Twelve years later, one of their favorite dances is one they perform together. 

"It's a duet with me and Nicki", said Lao. "And the story is like I'm the peacock, and she's like a bird catcher, and she's going through the forest, and she's looking for a peacock, and she happens to find me. And then we kind of just play around in the forest a little."

"Sometimes I see people dancing along with us," said Lao, "I think that's like really sweet." 

It is just one of many dances that, with every performance, tells another story.

"We make trips to go to China, and then we do, like, dance camps there…and then they come back, and then we do the same thing. We pass down like dances per generation," said Hy. 

"It's a little bit of acting. So, it helps to kind of teach the students. You can't just go through the movements. You have to sort of feel through them," said Wong.

And what it gives them, is something that never leaves them. 

"Teachers are volunteers…they've been dancing with us since they were 7 or 8 years old. They went when working with their families, and now they volunteer to come back," said Wu.

They come back to share the art, the dance, the sisterhood.  A link that they hope stays with them for generations to come.