Born in the 1970s, Aly grew up on a small island off the coast of Texas. From a young age, she was blessed with a good sense of rhythm. She was enrolled three times a week in adagio, gymnastics, ballet, tap, jazz, and in high school, was a competitive cheerleader.
Her father was the Head of Psychiatry at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB). Her mother taught second grade and was a real estate agent. She was surrounded by researchers and scholars who worked at UTMB. It was a given that Aly would follow in her parents’ footsteps into medicine, doctorship, or academia. Her father made it clear, “No daughter of mine will make a career in dance.”
Her sibling ended up going to nursing school. Still, Aly was unconvinced that she should spend the next decade of her life completing an MPH or Ph.D. program.
Instead, she decided to go to China. In 1994 Aly made her first trip to Wuhan for leisure. China was a different place back then, “foreigners and the Chinese had different money, and were not allowed to mingle and mix around freely,” she recalled. Without knowing a single Chinese word, she and her friend went to the countryside outside of Anlu, Hubei province, to stay with his student’s family. They spent their days farming, swimming in the lake, and singing songs at night. She had fallen in love with China.
After hearing about a small village in Guizhou, she made her second trip in 1997; but this time, “there was no plan.” After she landed, she hopped in a cab, rolled down her windows. It was cool and wet; looking out, all she could see was the red, clay-like earth, and she began to cry out of happiness.
As there were few foreigners, it was an immersive Chinese experience. She enrolled in Guizhou University and went to the villages of the Langde or Kaili. On weekends, she would take a minibus to hang out with the Miao ethnic minorities. She did not struggle to learn Guiyanghua, but struggled to find someone to practice Mandarin with. There was no running water, and they were shut out from the world. “It was so remote that people asked if I was an albino Chinese.”
She spent her nights dancing, singing, and absorbing her environment. After two and a half years of living with the Miao, she decided she would go back to school, but this time — in China.
She knew that she needed the bravery to tell her parents; Aly wrote a letter to the family explaining that she had thought about it for quite some time and believed that she would stay in China and audition for the Beijing Dance Academy.
For the first time during this interview, I felt an air of melancholy envelop her voice.
Being young and in her 20s, she didn’t want to let her family down and knew and chose the least preferable path. She said, “yet, I had complete faith in myself,” and she wanted to articulate that without hurting them. At the same time, she wasn’t asking for permission.
While Aly’s parents helped pay for her sibling’s master’s program, they made it clear that she was on her own for hers.
As the most competitive dance academy in China, it was evident that she was going to struggle. Everyone danced from 8:30 am to 8:30 pm. It was an ambitious environment, and every student wanted to be in the front row. Having always performed well in school, it was hard for the ego. She had to learn how to be patient with herself, “you may not be in the front row, so accept being in the back.” Through relinquishing control, she learned to better train her body to process the movement and think differently.
Though not explicitly stated, it was implied that everyone should look the same. Being a tall white woman with broad shoulders and a small head, she was different, and that challenged the aesthetic uniformity of each and every class.
As the only westerner at the school, she felt lonely for the first two years. Nobody was going to understand her, and it was her job to understand everyone else, literally. “There was no mercy, just because you were American.” Since she looked different from everyone else, some even mistrusted her and accused her of being a spy.
But through all this, Aly lived by the life philosophy that: if it exists, then there’s a reason it’s here, and find your path. To make an effort and have integrity. She challenged the assumption that everyone should be the same. She questioned her professors, “should only Chinese people do Chinese dance? No? Then start with me.”
When she moved to New York in 2007 to teach at NYU Tisch, it was a given that she would experience reverse culture shock. In China, she was well known and was on TV. Restarting in a big city made her just like anybody else.
She was acclimated to and worked well within the Chinese hierarchy and workplace structure. But in New York, people had very strong opinions; the arts were also theoretical. “Whereas so much of our work as choreographers was determined and ruled by our collective efforts and relationships in Beijing, New York was the opposite. Artists self-promoted, self-relied, and self-destructed.”
With her community structure gone, it was hard for her to find her footing and her identity. She was a white woman with fiery red hair on the outside, but she felt like a Chinese dancer on the inside.
She taught at Tisch for almost a decade. During that time, she worked with Special Programs to create the Dance Minor and open art classes for students who were not going to be professional dancers. NYU Shanghai then invited her to help start a dance program in the same vein.
In 2016 she decided to move back to China to help create the program while teaching Choreography & Performance and Contemporary Dance. She also directs a Dance for Camera series with students and museums. Being a professor has forced her to be even more sensitive, a better creator, and a better human being.
She has maintained her love and appreciation for different heights, shapes, and body types and that “everyone should speak their voice with their body.” She believes that as students spend more time online and are immersed in virtual realities, connecting to one’s body may take longer, but dance can be very transformative. It makes you more present and aware of why you move.
She also works on Dance For Camera, creating film projects with the NYU Shanghai Dance program and outside communities. Her most recent film, “MONK,” has received honors from the San Francisco Dance Film Festival, and Los Angeles Experimental Film Festival, among others.
On weekends, she attends pottery and painting class with her partner and also plays the zither.
After hearing her story, I accepted without a doubt that Aly is one of the most dauntless, creative, and enthusiastic professors I have had the privilege to learn from. Although she is taking a sabbatical next semester, I highly recommend her Choreography & Performance class to those interested in performing and learning more about their bodies.
To know more about Aly and her work, visit her website at https://www.alyrose.org.
This article was written by Kathy Song. Please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to get in touch.
Photo Credit: NYU Shanghai contemporary dance professor Aly Rose strikes the pose.