Engaging Atlanta: Kerry Lee

Photo Credit: Stephanie Gough
Kerry Lee leaps onstage with her body profiled to the side and her head turned toward the audience. A long ribbon held in her right hand frames her body mid-movement. In this black and white photo, she is wearing a sleeveless top, hair decal, long pants and slippers.

June 22, 2022
Volume 3 Issue 3

DanceATL continues to conduct brief interviews with dance organizations around Atlanta to listen and learn about their desires and challenges. In an effort to maintain full transparency, these interviews will be published via our digital publication Promenade. This will ensure accountability on DanceATL’s behalf, and inform readers about the needs of dance organizations in Atlanta.

Our goal in conducting and publicizing these interviews is to gain a better understanding of how we can support all members of the dance community in Atlanta, build a connected network of dance organizations and artists, and institute changes that can act as an example for artistic communities nationwide.  We welcome all feedback about this process, please email info@danceatl.org with any questions or concerns. Below is a transcript of our interview with Kerry Lee, Co-Artistic Director of the Atlanta Chinese Dance Company.

Julie Gomez, DanceATL: As an internal initiative for DanceATL, we are trying to get an assessment of community needs through interviews and better understanding of dance organizations around Atlanta. We strive to learn how DanceATL can serve your organization and ensure vital and important members of the community as we continue to grow. The main goal is to gain a better understanding of how we can support you and your dance organization, as we mentioned, to build a connected network of dance organizations and artists, and institute changes that can act as an example for artistic communities Nationwide. Some of the questions we’ll be asking you relate to whether or not you currently use any of the DanceATL services, some of your challenges right now, especially moving forward post Covid, and your vision for the community and others.

Jacque: Okay, awesome! So, just to start, can you please introduce yourself or any affiliations, interest, anything you just want us to know about you and Atlanta Chinese Dance Company? 

Kerry: My name is Kerry Lee, and I’m the Co-Artistic Director of the Atlanta Chinese Dance Company. I’m an Atlanta native, so I grew up in Atlanta. My mother Hwee-Eng Y. Lee is the founder of the Atlanta Chinese Dance Company. She founded it in 1991, so I grew up with it pretty much for my whole life. For me and for many of our dancers, it’s one of the few ways that we can connect with our Chinese heritage here in the US, and especially in the South which I think is often thought of as a black/white racial binary. 

It’s a way for us to learn our heritage and also to share it with others. That’s something that’s very important to us, not just to keep Chinese dance in our little Chinese American bubble, but to also share it with the general public. So we typically will do a production every 18 months in a theater, such as Gas South Theater [formerly known as Infinite Energy Theater in Duluth], which is what [Jacque] saw. Last year, because of Covid-19, there were delays (like two years in between), but typically we try to do it every 18 months. 

So that’s basically our main event and it’s a full-evening show, so it usually has a lot of pieces representing different ethnic groups in China, different periods of Chinese history, and in recent years we’ve also explored the Chinese American experience as well. And then we also do a lot of community outreach shows, like in schools, military bases, senior homes, libraries, all sorts of things.  

Because I grew up in Atlanta and I am American born Chinese, I also have an extensive dance background outside of Chinese dance, like in ballet schools such as Atlanta Ballet, performing professionally in modern/contemporary companies in New York and here in Atlanta with glo, and I’ve also just really enjoyed taking classes as much as I can, both in the commercial [and] concert realm. So as a choreographer, I really like to explore the Chinese American experience, because I feel like usually Chinese dance in China is about being in China and I can relate to it in some ways. But then, at the same time, being Chinese American, I don’t feel like it represents my experience and so many of us that are American born. So, one of my choreographic interests is to share the Chinese American experience, especially here in the South, and just kind of finding an authentic way of doing that by melding Chinese dance with other art forms. My goal is to honor our Chinese heritage while asserting our Americanness at the same time.

I also worked at Alternate ROOTS for many years. I hope you guys are familiar with Alternate ROOTS. It’s an arts and social justice network in the South. I think it really had a deep impact on my work, because seeing how artists use their craft as a way of pushing for social change really helped me reframe the way that I see Chinese dance because I grew up with it and I’ve used to take it for granted and almost looked down on it, because I also had this Western dance background which is much more dominant in the US. Working at ROOTS had a big impact on the way I see the world and see dance. It helped me to see the power of Chinese dance to transform lives – my own and so many others.

Jacque: That was fantastic. Thank you for sharing all of that. Yes, DanceATL is familiar with Alternate ROOTS. It’s an awesome organization!

Kerry: That’s reflective of my life experience. I was a Stanford engineering major and was working for an economic consulting [firm] for a year and I was like I really can’t do the cubicle thing and then ended up dancing and then ended up doing political organizing. 

Julie: With all the people you interacted with, what are they saying about after High School? Are they saying, “I can’t be an engineer [and] dance” or “I’m looking at you and you’ve done it all”? What are they saying when there’s so much pressure for knowing what you want to do post-secondary when you’re like in the 8th grade? And then especially in the Arts fields, there’s a lot of pressure to show that you’re going to be sustainable and be able to make money…  What things are you hearing from your younger dancers and families?

Kerry: I think there is definitely societal pressure not to pursue the arts. But it’s something that I hope one day the Chinese American community will see as a viable career path. It’s like the chicken and the egg… I feel like, at this current moment, there aren’t that many professional Chinese dance jobs out there, so I think it’s realistic for young dancers today to not see it as a viable career path. But that’s something that I would like to change.

Julie: Thank you. Do you think that that’s something that DanceATL and the greater dance community can help companies spread opportunities for young people to pursue paths in the Arts? 

Kerry: One thing I’ve been thinking about is that I’ve started to teach more in performing arts high schools and university dance programs. I think more exposure in the academic setting is important for people to see Chinese dance as a legitimate art form that everyone – not just Chinese people – can learn and enjoy. I feel like there’s often a misconception that Western art forms are universal and should be understood and enjoyed by all, but art forms like Chinese dance just serve our own community and aren’t even really “art” but “culture.” Also when it comes to grant panels, it can be hard for people to assess our work if they don’t have a basic understanding of what Chinese dance is. So I think cultivating opportunities for the greater dance community to learn and enjoy Chinese dance will  help the field of Chinese dance grow in the US. 

Julie: Thank you. That was a big question. Before I pass it back to Jacque, is there anything else about your Dance Experience and your experiences as a choreographer that you’d want to share as far as the passion and your art form? 

Kerry: What drives me is fundamentally like the #StopAsianHate movement and even before it… Growing up I never really felt like I could be a real American, and I always perceived being a real American as being white and just even the simplest things… Like even for my school principal to be an Asian American woman, that to me would seem impossible. I think that sort of perpetual foreigner thinking puts our community in physical danger, because we’re often scapegoated for things like COVID-19, the decline of Detroit’s auto industry, World War II, etc. What ultimately drives me is that I hope that we can get to a point where the Asian American community, and marginalized communities in general, are seen as fully human and fully American. What can I do as a choreographer to help build that understanding or connection between people or filling gaps in education in terms of Chinese and Chinese American history and culture not being taught in schools at a level that European history is being taught? So that’s ultimately what drives me. 

I do want to clarify that the main thing our company does is still more in terms of sharing traditional Chinese culture and history, in addition to the social justice angle as Chinese Americans. So there is kind of both. I just want to make it clear that the Chinese American experience is not the only thing we explore, though it’s what I’m most passionate about as a choreographer. Holding space for our mostly Chinese American dancers to learn and share our cultural heritage with the American public is also a key part of what we do. 

Jacque: Thank you for clarifying that and ensuring all of that. I definitely want to continue the trajectory of this conversation and I also want to make sure that I am asking other important questions. I have a feeling we’ll probably dance around similar topics that you’ve already started on. Just to ask, how do you define community and who or what makes up your community? 

Photo Credit: Stephanie Gough
Atlanta Chinese Dance Company performing on stage. Dancers sitting in the back are in white Chinese traditional costume, holding red ribbon. Four dancers are standing in the front stage, wearing different Chinese traditional costumes.

Kerry: The core part of our community is people that are interested in Chinese dance and culture, which by the nature of it is primarily people who are either American born Chinese or Chinese immigrants from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, etc, or biracial. That also includes Chinese adoptees with white parents. Most of our dancers have Chinese heritage, but we also have dancers who are not Chinese or even Asian. So that’s our core community, but we also serve the broader Atlanta community and the broader American community. You could see it in two ways, in terms of our dancers as a community and in terms of who we serve as an audience base, which is much broader. What is community? People who care about each other and feel connected through having common ground in some way, and then there’s some sense of caring for each other. 

Jacque: Continuing with that, can you give an example of what you’re doing when you’re showing that care and being engaged in that community? Like what does it mean when you said that you were a member of this community? 

Kerry: I think for us, it’s creating a safe space to learn and share Chinese dance, culture, and history. That’s what draws us together. It also becomes a space where for example after  the Atlanta spa shooting, it spontaneously becomes a place for us to have a dialogue and process the trauma of it together. 

Julie: The following questions are about your familiarity with DanceATL as an organization and how it can enhance or benefit your group. Has the Atlanta Chinese Dance Company been involved in DanceATL or utilized some of the resources in the past? 

Kerry: We posted our event on the website, and I think that’s how I met Jacque. And then you offered to have us take over the Instagram stories, so that was cool. It was a great opportunity for us to be able to amplify our work further. I follow DanceATL on social media, so I see the compiled events that are going on. That’s mainly my involvement.  

Julie: You have a big company and knowing that two items were successful tools for your company is very positive to know. Patsy is going to be really happy to hear that social media takeover was effective. So, that’s great to know. 

Can you think of anything that DanceATL could do more of? We touched on being more involved with the schools and as well as in connecting events and even with the opportunities for performances. With the other topics of social justice and with your organization—is it in Gwinnett? 

Kerry: We’re officially based in Peachtree Corners, but we rehearse in Chamblee and Johns Creek. Peachtree Corners is in Gwinnett, Johns Creek is in North Fulton and Chamblee is in DeKalb. 

Julie: How can DanceATL better serve your stakeholders? Or just different ideas like how dance communities are moving out of the city especially during post-covid.

Kerry: One of the things that I’ve been thinking about is sharing Asian American history in schools. I know there are groups that are   advocating for it, but I wonder if there’s a way that we can push for it specifically through arts programming as a way to bring Asian American history into schools. 

Jacque: Do you know what the name of the group is? 

Kerry: One example is the Facebook group “Georgia Asian Americans for Education.” There are many more efforts around the country too. 

I think what you guys did in terms of amplifying our work helps. I feel like the dance world tends to be dominated by ballet, contemporary, and Hip Hop, whereas so-called “culturally specific dance” is always in the margins. So anything that helps amplify it in the “mainstream” is helpful so we are not always seen as outsiders.  

I don’t know if you guys know staibdance’s (MC)2 Festival which opened last year. We were part of that. That was helpful because, at least for a long time, there hasn’t been something like that has brought together different culturally specific dance groups in Atlanta. I feel like there’s more stuff going on than we all realize, because everyone’s kind of doing it in their own places. It was nice that they brought different groups together for shared performances, classes, and community conversations. It was also great that since staibdance is a contemporary dance company, I think they drew in audiences who maybe wouldn’t necessarily seek out these sorts of performances or at least not all of them because there were five or six groups performing per night. It was a nice way to bridge those two communities. 

Jacque: Yeah, absolutely. Kerry, do you have any questions for us that we can answer?

Kerry: I’m interested in what else you guys talked about with the other artists. I’ll read it on the DanceATL website. I’m curious about what other people were saying, like was it similar or different from what I was saying? Is what I’ve said surprising to you or not surprising to you? 

Jacque: I wouldn’t say any of this is a surprise by any means, but I think it’s definitely affirming to hear this directly from community members. Also, I really enjoy sitting down and listening and having a conversation about these things versus like a Google form or an email.  

Kerry: Even though you are DanceATL, perhaps you can help Atlanta artists to perform outside of Atlanta more. Especially in smaller cities that have limited access to dance programming, not to mention Chinese dance. One of my favorite things this past year has been doing lecture-demonstrations for schools in northwest Georgia. Literally, you walk into any school and you’re lucky to find one Asian kid. Sometimes there are none. It felt very meaningful, because sometimes we go to the school and they do the whole “ching chong” thing and it’s 2022… Like how are we still here?

But in a way you can’t blame them because they’re probably just hearing it from their parents or from the news. If they rarely get to meet a real live Asian person in the flesh, they don’t have much to counter those stereotypes. So even beyond dance, it feels meaningful to us to even be in the school with them speaking English and sharing Chinese culture. In the beginning sometimes people laugh at us or are standoffish perhaps because they think what we’re doing is “weird,” but by the end they’re up on their feet dancing with us and raising their hand to say “Chinese dance is cool!” I think that there’s value in that, so I wish we could do more of that outside of the Atlanta area.

Jacque: In terms of DanceATL involvement, are you thinking about funding, travel, booking venues? What in that way would you think that DanceATL could help most? 

Kerry: I think like in an agent role, helping to connect schools or other presenters with artists. It’s very labor intensive on both sides to figure out who is open to us performing, or the other way around. There’s also the issue of travel, since people often have a limited budget even just to cover honorarium.

Julie: That’s great information. 

Jacque: That is, for sure. We definitely have directories of local things: venues, studios, etc. But necessarily not performing arts High School and not outside of Atlanta.

Thank you, Kerry, so much for speaking with us. I look forward to continuing this conversation and supporting you and your organization.