A dancing swallow in the flames of war

After Japan launched its aggressive war against China in 1937, Dai took part in benefit performances organized by the China Campaign Committee in London to raise funds for the Hong Kong-based China Defense League, headed by Soong Ching Ling, wife of Sun Yat-sen.

Then came a turning point in the dancer's life. By chance, Dai read Edgar Snow's Red Star Over China , which made her decide to return to China. With the help of Soong, Dai arrived in Hong Kong in 1940 and soon fell in love with the noted painter Ye Qianyu.

Dai Ailian in 2002

After she arrived in the city of Guilin via Macao, she found to her surprise that such a large country had no place for artistic dance performances. Many people thought that she was a dance- hostess in bars when they heard she was a dancer. Some people even thought "dancer" was another name for a prostitute. She realized the reason for the lack of dance in China was the absence of brave pioneers to make it popular, besides the obvious reasons related to society and history.

Since she was a red-blooded youth, she decided to face the difficulties and blaze new trails.

Dai Ailian with Ye Qianyu
Trained in classical Western ballet, Dai showed great interest in Chinese folk dances, especially the ethnic dances. Soon after she returned to China, she traveled many times to see the minorities in Southwest China's Yunnan, Guizhou, Guangxi, and Sichuan provinces to learn the folk dances from the ethnic people.

The direction Chinese dance should take was unclear to Dai at the time. It would have been easy to introduce the Western ballet and modern dance she had learned, and people of the upper classes would have readily accepted it. However, Dai Ailian chose a different path by devoting herself to developing national dance, which was a dream she had held for many years.

When she was learning dance in London, she often saw dance performances at overseas students' social activities by the students from other countries, including Japan, India, and Indonesia, but she never saw anyone from China performing. She felt it was a pity Chinese dance was not being shown, and it made her think what modern Chinese dance should be like. Based on materials she had in English about Chinese history, literature, and painting plus her own understanding of dance, she designed "ideal Chinese national dances," such as the Royal Concubine Yang and Weeping Willow . When she arrived in China, Dai began to make her dream a reality.

Dai Ailian's new trails were based on two parts.
The first was to learn from local Chinese operas, taking from them traditional Chinese dances. For instance, the dance in Melody to Homesick was choreographed to a piece of music of the same name written by Ma Sicong, including postures from Kunqu Opera for the dance. The success of another dance in The Old Carrying the Young was a result of studying Xiaofeiyan, a famous actress of Guiju Opera.

The second part concerned studying from ordinary people and getting source materials from folk dances. For example, after watching people of the Yao ethnic group gather and dance to the accompaniment of drums, she created the dance The Drum of the Yao People. Also, The Spring Outing was created when Dai became familiar with the custom of Tibetan people singing and dancing to their hearts content when plum flowers blossom every year.

Dai Ailian and Her Students

Under the poor conditions of that time, Dai Ailian endured untold hardships to study the dances of ethnic groups in West China. She also managed to make friends with the local people and remove their worries while learning the religious dances of some ethnic groups. In this way, she created and performed a group of new national dances based on the dances of the Miao, Yao, Yi, Tibetan, Uygur, and Han ethnicities.

Some of the performances were inspired by real life during the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression (1937-1945), and burned with patriotism. For instance, Dongjiang River was about a story in which a woman risks her life to transport medicine to the frontline under heavy bombing from enemy planes.

Dai Ailian and Performers

The dances of Dai Ailian created a strong and wide response. In 1946, at the gatherings of frontier music and dancing in Chongqing, Tianjin, and Shanghai, Dai Ailian performed a number of national dances she had created. The public referred to her as a sower of seeds and the "first person to tap the heritage left by the ancestors." Today, a historical evaluation on that grand activity is found in the entry for Dai Ailian in the Chinese Encyclopedia: "Not only did she help the folk dances of various ethnic groups in China get onto the modem stage, but she also launched a popularization campaign of folk dances."