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Celebrating the dance contributions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders


 MAY 2023

In May we celebrate the contributions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to our shared dance heritage. Here are a few inspiring dancers who spent some or all of their careers in the United States and whose perseverance inspired others to dance.


Sun Ock Lee (born January 14, 1943)

Dancer Sun Ock Lee studied traditional Korean dance from the age of nine and relocated to the United States in 1969, forming her company in 1974. In the 1980s she published two volumes about Zen dance and began preserving traditional Korean dance forms.


Li Cunxin (born January 26, 1961)

The story of Chinese-born ballet dancer Li Cunxin is featured in the movie Mao's Last Dancer (2009). Invited to study in the United States by the Houston Ballet in the 1970s, Cunxin defected and danced with the company for 16 years. After a stint as a stockbroker, he accepted the post of artistic director of the Queensland Ballet in 2012.


Yuriko Kikuchi (1920-2022)

Known simply as Yuriko, the modern dancer survived World War II Japanese internment camps and went on to study and perform with choreographer Martha Graham (1894-1991) for 50 years.


Yuan Yuan Tan (born February 14, 1977)

Ballerina Yuan Yuan Tan was promoted to principal dancer at the age of 20, the youngest such appointment at the San Francisco Ballet.


Michio Ito (1892-1961)

Dancer and choreographer Michio Ito studied modern dance in Germany before relocating to the United States in 1916. He inspired fledgling modern dancers on both coasts through his symphonic dance concerts and tours until his repatriation to Japan during World War II.


Harry Shum, Jr. (born April 28, 1982)

Dancer Harry Shum, Jr., is best known for creating the role of Mike Chang on the TV series Glee (2009-2015) and for appearing in dance films You Got Served (2004) and Stomp the Yard (2007) as well two Step Up sequels (2008 and 2010). Born in Costa Rica, he grew up in San Francisco and left college to pursue a dance career, becoming a backup dancer for Beyoncé, Missy Elliott, Jennifer Lopez, and other artists.


Baayork Lee (born December 5, 1946)

New York–born dancer Baayork Lee premiered on Broadway in the original version of The King and I (1951) as one of the featured young princesses and went on to appear in Flower Drum Song (1958) and Promises, Promises (1968) before originating the autobiographical role of Connie in A Chorus Line (1975), choreographed by her high school friend Michael Bennett (1943-1987).


Reiko Sato (1931-1981)

Dancer Reiko Sato worked with choreographer Jack Cole (1911-1974) and danced in a featured role in Kismet for both the Broadway and Hollywood versions during the 1950s. She also danced in the dream ballet in the movie Flower Drum Song (1961).


Kei Takei (born December 30, 1946)

Tokyo-born postmodern choreographer Kei Takei relocated to the United States in 1967 as part of the Fulbright scholarship program and founded the Moving Earth dance company, creating an enormous series of pieces entitled Light.


Check out the Human Kinetics publication Dance Appreciation and follow along all month to enjoy May dancer birthdays at the Today in Dance project: You can also tune in to the Today in Dance podcast, available from Apple podcasts, as it unfolds this year.


Dance Appreciation


Dawn Davis Loring

Dawn is the lead author of Dance Appreciation. Besides performing, writing, and lecturing about dance, Dawn founded her own dance company, Mosaic Dance Body, and they are working on a new project for 2022. To stay refreshed as an artist, she is cooking her way through her favorite Instant Pot Indian food recipe book, tends her succulent garden, and plays with her beagles Becky and Belle.