Like a lot of little girls, Lili Teng wanted to be an actress. She even had a real shot at becoming one. In 1958, at the age of 10, Teng was accepted as a student at a movie studio in Shanghai. But her apprenticeship didn't last long. A few months later, Mao Zedong instituted a series of political and social changes called the Great Leap Forward, intended to move the country from an agrarian to an industrialized economy. Teng's movie studio was forced to make cuts and it dumped its youngest members. The movie studio sent Teng and a handful of other girls to an art institute to study classical Chinese dance instead.

The dance classes were meant as a sort of consolation prize. Yet, in them, Teng found her calling. She would perform in front of audiences and wow them with her talent and beauty. She would wear glamorous clothes. She would be involved with the production of Chinese television programming. She just wouldn't do any of it as a movie star. She would do it all as a dancer and choreographer.

Approaching 60, Teng is still dancing and still choreographing shows. However, she no longer lives in Shanghai; she lives in St. Paul. She emigrated from China in 1999 with her husband and son. They chose Minnesota because their eldest child, a daughter, was already living in the Twin Cities. Minnesota Women's Press sat down with a translator and Teng, whose English is limited, to learn about her life as a dancer, a wife, a mother, an immigrant and a woman.

A leading lady
As a young dancer, Teng commanded leading roles. Her on-stage career began when she was 17 years old and dancing consumed her. She delayed marriage and motherhood in an era and culture where women were expected to do both at an early age. Eventually she did marry a man who understood the demands of her work. Her husband, Aiquin He, was a musical composer. He often played the piano while she danced. Their courtship lasted seven years.

Teng nodded when asked if it was difficult to balance her highly visible and demanding career with life at home. She was lucky, she said, to have married a man who knew from the start that she worked long hours. She smiled as she told how her husband ran baths for her after especially grueling days on her feet. Sometimes, she said, he even cooked for her.

Teng's mother stepped in to fill another crucial need-child care. After the birth of her first child, Teng returned to the stage. She danced for another two years and couldn't have done it without her mother's help. A tipping point came, however, when Teng came home one day and heard her daughter call her "auntie." Teng felt guilty that her daughter didn't recognize her face. She realized she needed to spend more time at home.

Something else was nagging at Teng as well. She was 35. There were increasingly younger and prettier dancers trying out for the limited leading female roles. Her body, she realized, was no longer "perfect." A Chinese opera, Teng explained, requires displays of great emotion from its performers. She appreciated that challenge and the opportunity to express her own feelings through the characters she played. Yet she also believed, she said, that dance-especially Chinese dance-expresses beauty through youth. Ultimately, she gave up the stage so that younger dancers could carry on that tradition.

Discovering new roles
With her performing days behind her, Teng started a new chapter in life. She had a second child, this time a son, and she started teaching. Teng had never pictured herself a teacher and didn't think she had the patience to deal with children. She surprised herself, however. She liked seeing her students progress and tracking their achievements. Yet most important, teaching led Teng to discover another talent: choreography.

As Teng planned shows for her students, she found that choreographing routines and collaborating with musicians was interesting and exciting.

Choreography, she said, became an extension of her artistic self, a new way to express her emotions and thoughts. Plus, she and her husband had new reason to work side by side. Together they arranged many productions. Teng was so successful as a choreographer that she worked on Chinese television shows.

A new stage
Compared to many Chinese, Teng's family lived a successful, comfortable life, yet in 1999 they decided to give up their recognition and status for the unknown. Their daughter was already living in Minnesota and their son dreamed of going to school in the United States. Because of their outstanding abilities in the arts, Teng and her husband secured visas which allowed them to emigrate. Amazingly, the woman who had once worked so many hours that her daughter didn't recognize her face decided to give up everything and move to America to become a grandma. Teng didn't plan on continuing her career in Minnesota. She thought it was over.

The United States has surprised Teng. Language, she said, has proven difficult. She also expected every American city to look like New York. She expected dense skyscrapers, traffic and neighborhoods. Her son didn't become a conductor like she had thought, but a restaurant manager, and her daughter, who had been the reason Teng and her husband picked Minnesota as home, returned to China to work as a businesswoman. Yet perhaps the biggest surprise Teng discovered in America was an opportunity to continue her work as a dancer, teacher and choreographer.

Since 2005, Teng has been the artistic director of the nationally known Chinese Dance Theater, which is part of the Chinese American Association of Minnesota (CAAM). She teaches classical Chinese dance to children as young as 2 and adults as old as 65. In March, her dancers will perform "Leap Into Spring," a show she arranged and choreographed in celebration of the Chinese New Year. Teng is quick to say that CAAM's upcoming show wouldn't be possible if not for the numerous parent volunteers who sew costumes, ferry children back and forth to practices and performances, get the word out, sell tickets and usher the event at O'Shaughnessy Auditorium.

Cultural differences
Working with parent volunteers has been a new experience for Teng, as has working with American children. Her students aren't the only ones doing some learning-there was a considerable learning curve, Teng admitted, that she had to go through. In China, Teng said, her dance students were training to be professionals. They approached traditional Chinese dance with a level of seriousness and dedication not found in her American students. In Minnesota, Teng said, her dance students are learning classical Chinese dance for fun. Many are the children of Chinese immigrants or adopted Chinese children. These students are studying under Teng to familiarize themselves with Chinese culture.

Teng has learned to encourage her American students and offer praise, a habit that did not come easily to her. Chinese students, she said, expect a teacher to be strict. American children, she said, expect a certain amount of freedom. For example, she said, a Chinese student wouldn't dare think to ask for a drink of water in the middle of dance class whereas an American student doesn't even see the need to ask. An American student just goes and gets a drink. Another cultural difference has reared its head as well. In China, Teng said, her main concern in choreographing a show was to put the most accomplished and prettiest dancers at the front of the stage. That tactic, however, doesn't sit well with American parents who want an equal stage presence for all children. Yet Teng has learned to work with the cultural differences. In fact, she said, the traditions of the old culture shouldn't be pressed on children in a new culture. A new generation should have new values.

Yet Teng sticks to her guns about one thing: Dance, she said, is the most beautiful part of Chinese culture and she will continue to do her part to share it.