The crowded theater falls to a hush as the lights begin to dim. The audience squirms in their seats as they make last minute preparations, quietly taking out their cameras and turning off their cell phones. A murmur of anticipation settles over the audience as they wait for the dancers to come onstage.

That feeling of anticipation is multiplied by a hundred backstage. From behind the wings, Albany High School Senior Alissa Li takes a nervous breath as she continues her backstage warm up.

“I don’t do any good luck charm mumbo-jumbo, but I stand to the side of the stage before a performance and relieve or balance in passe,” Li said, “It helps calm me down, get centered, and warm up my muscles for turns. And of course I stretch.”

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Alissa Li as Mulan in an Ah-Lan Dance Chinese Dance showcase.

As the curtain opens up, the dark, dense stage looms in front of her. But Li, who has been dancing for 13 years, is not daunted by it. The thought of performing in front of an audience and moving people with movement gives her a blast of adrenaline. As the loud music begins, she fearlessly leaps onto the stage with a warm smile on her face. 

Alissa Li first began dancing in kindergarten, where she spent the entire first class attempting to mimic the dance teacher. Since that first class, her love of dance has only grown stronger.

“My first ballet teacher made a huge impact on me,” Li said emphatically, “she had a pixie-cut and tattoo. She would pay a lot of attention to be because I was the youngest, and taught me that ballet isn’t boring.”

Li currently dances five days a week and spends two hours a week teaching. Li takes classes eight to ten hours a week in dance styles including Chinese dance, modern, contemporary, tap, jazz, and ballet. Li also studied acrobatics until schoolwork got in the way.

“It’s hard to keep up with everything,” Li said on the relationship between dance and her heavy amount of homework, “Dance is hard to do while also having academics.” But to Li, it is worth it to do both. Dance has taught Li to be energetic and confident in every aspect of life.

Li displays that confidence every time she performs. One of her most memorable performances includes dancing in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade with Katie’s Dance Studio. Although the weather was unpleasant, the rush of excitement she felt performing with a big group of people on national TV made up for it.

Li’s greatest dance accomplishment so far has been dancing the lead role of Mulan in an Ah-Lan Dance Chinese Dance showcase. As Mulan, Li had to perform a solo as well as the soloist in five group dances. The experience was “tough, but very exciting.”

“I’m not very in-tune with Chinese culture, but Chinese dance is the main way I interact with it.”  As well as being a “beautiful artform,” Chinese dance has also helped Li connect with her Chinese heritage.

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Li with the dancers of Ah-Lan Dance.

“Chinese and Western style dance are very different,” Alissa Li explained. Each movement in Chinese dance has been passed down from generation to generation. Ethnic minorities in China pride themselves on their folk dance traditions. Chinese dance “looks really pretty,” and there is a feeling of restrained elegance hidden behind a shy smile.

On the other hand, many western dance styles including tap and jazz are  more “showy and expressive with sharp movement.” By studying so many types of western dance styles, it is easy for Li to see the interconnectedness of them all. Ballet came first, then modern and lyrical followed, jazz coinciding with them. Through dance, it is easy to see the development of both western and Chinese culture.

“Lots of people say they can’t dance, but I don’t agree. Most things in life are based on doing. If you can talk, you can sing. If you can walk, you can dance,” Li said happily. Li lives by her own words, always putting her all into hard dance routines and trying her best.

“I don’t plan to dance professionally or major in dance-though a minor is still a possibility. Being a professional dancer is just such a physically taxing and short career, and it’s even harder if you haven’t been training for it your entire life. I do, however, want to continue dancing for my entire life.There really isn’t anything like it.” Alissa Li plans to enter college with the same optimism she shows in her pursuit of dance.