Seven years ago, in her mid-50s, Wei Li took her first steps toward a long-standing dream. She started attending dance classes once a week at the Haiyan International Dance Academy near her home in the suburbs of Portland, Ore.
After three years, Li started going to class twice a week. Then last March, as the country faced widespread stay-at-home orders because of the coronavirus, she started attending class three days a week over Zoom. She also started teaching dance to friends around the world (also via Zoom) — a mix of ballet and her own choreographed breakdowns of Chinese dances she finds on YouTube.
At 62, Li, who is also an avid hiker and gardener, says she is in the best shape of her life.
A recent socially distant photo shoot with Yang Zou — her longtime ballet teacher and a photographer — is a testament to her progress.
I spoke to Li and her daughters, Jing Wang, 36, and Lisa Wang, 27, who live in Portland, Los Angeles and Seattle, respectively, about Li’s journey and how it has brought them all joy.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Soo Youn: How did you become interested in dance? Had you done it before?
Wei Li: I am from a very small town. I liked dancing, but I never had a teacher. My childhood in China was [during the] Cultural Revolution. I never took a dancing class.
After we moved to the U.S.A., I had to work hard to raise the two girls and for the family. Luckily we have the Haiyan Academy, founded by Haiyan Wu — who was a principal dancer at the National Ballet of China, Miami City Ballet and the Oregon Ballet Theatre — and Yang Zou.
They both are Chinese. So my friends passed the information to me [and said], “Maybe the classes are good, you have to try.” I have a kid’s dream, so I said, “Okay.”
Since last year I teach my friends dancing also.
Soo Youn: You’re teaching your friends to dance?
Wei Li: My teaching isn’t professional, and there’s no charge. Just an open Zoom class for my friends. They enjoy it. We do ballet, and I teach my friends Chinese dancing. I learn from YouTube.
Jing Wang: She’s always been a natural. Over the last year, she’s gone from training through the ballet classes into, “Hey, I can watch other people’s choreography from these various Chinese dances.” And she is breaking those things down, then she’s helping her friends who are tuning in from around the world.
Lisa Wang: It’s four different countries.
Jing Wang: On our family chat threads, our mom will share with us the videos of her and her friends doing this coordinated group learning that she is leading. She’s enjoying taking a piece of choreography, learning it and figuring out how to be able to coach her friends. She’s also teaching people how to gain greater flexibility.
Lisa Wang: Ballet basics.
Jing Wang: She uses the kitchen counter that’s in our house as her barre equivalent.
Wei Li: I use a chair.
Jing Wang: She has tried to teach it to both me and Lisa, and we are both very bad.
Wei Li: I take class from Haiyan three times a week, and I teach my friends two times.
Soo Youn: So you’re dancing five days a week. How many people take your classes?
Wei Li: Right now, I have 38 people. But not everybody can come because they have work or something. So usually around 18 to 20 people.
Soo Youn: Lisa mentioned four countries. Which countries?
Wei Li: U.S.A. — some friends from California, the East Coast and Washington D.C. And some friends from Canada and London and China.
I teach people body control and body movements. How to hold your leg or point your foot.
[Li lifts her leg and points her foot in the air, balancing on her chair.]
Jing Wang: We do a weekly family call and we sit on the carpet, and there’s a lot of, “Well, you just do this.” And we go, “How?”
Our mom’s a pretty avid hiker. So she’s casually doing six-, eight-mile hikes, every couple of weekends. She’s the most physically active person in our entire family.
Lisa Wang: By far.
Soo Youn: This makes me feel better about aging. I feel like I have all of these older people ailments lately. But Jing, you had mentioned that your mom really got fit in her 50s.
Jing Wang: In her 30s and 40s, our mom was working so hard along with our dad to be able to create a great life for me and my sister. And they gave up a lot to come to this country and to do what they’ve done for their family.
In their 50s, both of us had graduated college and had stable incomes and the ability to support ourselves. And some of that weight could get lifted off of my dad’s shoulders. Sorry, [crying] we just love our mom so much.
Lisa Wang: There’s actually a nine-year age gap between my sister and me, because Jing was born in China, and I was born in America when my mom was 36. So most of that time, between Mom’s 30s and 50s, was really spent trying to just get me over the stinking finish line, graduate from college, get me working.
Jing heads up a video game studio. I am the operations manager in digital projects for Snopes.com.
But none of that would be possible without Mom, if she hadn't sacrificed a lot of her own personal time, and her own physical energy. It's just so beautiful and wonderful to be able to see Mom have her chance to flourish.
My mother was always extremely supportive of my arts education. She took me to every choir rehearsal, she came to all the plays, every concert. Even when I was in college, she would drive down and come and see and support.
She didn't have the opportunity to do that when she was young. So it's just so beautiful to see her come into her own in dance in the last five years. Because she very much did that for both Jing and me when we were young.
Jing Wang: Our mom and dad both worked really hard in their teens and their 20s to overcome the enormous circumstances that were happening in China at that time to attend school at one of the top universities there. Then they each spent time as professors at different colleges and came to the U.S. to give me a better life and so that I could have a baby sister. [A policy in China did not allow the family to have another child at that time.]
Our mom didn’t start learning English until she was in her 30s. When she came over, despite the fact that she had been a university professor for more than a decade, she had to start from the baseline. Those decades that followed were her working herself to the bone. It wasn’t until she kind of got into her 50s and we were both grown up that some of the weight has been lifted, and she’s getting time to be able to devote to her creative pursuits.
Lisa Wang: My sister and I have our creative pursuits that give us a lot of fulfillment. So to be able to see our mother be able to spend so much more time in this space that’s helping her feel fulfilled, and getting to share some of that with the outside world, it’s really remarkable.
And gosh, what you said earlier? About her being in shape? We have our mom to point out we have no excuse.
Jing Wang: I’ll be sitting on the couch all day and suddenly get a message from my mom. And it’s her doing the splits on a hiking rock.
Lisa Wang: On a rock, on a mountain, on a bridge …
Soo Youn: Wait, is your dad an Instagram husband?
Lisa Wang: Yes, he totally is.
Jing Wang: It was [important to my parents to give me a sibling] so we would have someone that would really understand each other’s story because they knew that there was going to be a generation and a culture and a language gap. They did so much to make sure that my sister and I were each other’s best friends and confidants and understand each other. And so we are best friends.
Wei Li: I am very, very proud. I have two great girls. I love my family.
Jing has been in Los Angeles since 2003. Lisa is working for the last 10 years. A lot of times I’m alone because my husband is in China most of the time. So I have to make myself strong.
So I had to make friends. I joined a community group. I took the dance class. We also have a Chinese community. We do Chinese dancing, and we provide performances, like at Chinese New Year.
I want to make my life full of a lot of activity and make my body strong so my daughters will not worry too much about me.