The tips of toes gently point to the ground. Crisp clicks intertwine with the delightful sounds of the piano. One rotation after another matches the rhythm perfectly. Sunlight shines through the window and lands on the barre, which Sarah Zhu, 23, is holding as she practices the basic steps of ballet.
“Five, six, seven, eight!”
Her teacher, Feng Liu, is counting beats for her, helping her grasp a sense of music, which matches the exercise of ballet.
Sarah Zhu is not the only student she cares about.
“For the past 20 years, more than 8,000 students go out from this classroom, scattering around the world,” she said, with a kind smile on her face.
Feng Liu, a famous ballerina in China back in the 1980s, was once the chief dancer of The National Ballet.
“Ballet chose me,” she said.
At three years old, Liu became interested in ballet and began to learn. By the age of 13, Beijing Dance Academy chose her to dance with them, and she began to receive formal ballet training.
In 1981, she became a soloist in the China Opera and Dance Theatre. She soared to popularity with her performance of Dunhuang Painted Sculpture. Before that, the National Professional Ballet Competition had already awarded her the distinction as the No. 1 ballerina in the nation.
“I am lucky. Besides the best ballet education in China, I also got advice from world’s master ballet dancer,” she said. “Ulanova [a Russian ballerina who is one of the best in the world] is the teacher of my toe shoes. David Howard, from Royal Ballet, had also taught me about ballet technique. If I were not in the National Ballet, I would have no chance to get in touch with these wonderful people.”
When her dancing career was flourishing, the Beijing Film Academy admitted her and she became an actress who was soon nominated as the national best TV actress for her excellent performances in several films and TV series, in 1987.
“I have a strong motivation to learn. Therefore, when filming, I also learned to how to direct. And I applied the art which I learn to my film product.”
Her student, Zhu, feels the same way about her.
“She is a lady who never stops learning. She is always curious and optimistic.”
At the peak period of her career, however, Liu chose a road that surprised everybody – going to the United States. Her peer actresses and good friends, Xiaoqing Liu and Gaowa Siqin went on to be well-known TV and film stars in China.
“To me, delivering art and culture is more important than being famous,” she said. “All beautiful aura will give you a heavy burden. I want to choose a simple but pure way of life.”
In 1991, Liu came to America with only a suitcase of clothes and her pursuit of art. After spending a short time in several big cities, she finally chose Gainesville, Fla..
“After experiencing the bustling and noise in big cities, you prefer a quiet place, where you can really do something,” she said. “Here has a good university and also the demand of culture and art.”
“You’ll find peacefulness on her, which only exists on people who have been through storms,” Zhu said. “She wears simple clothing but never lacks of a sense of artistic temperament. Her face is soft and warm. She is willing to listen. You wouldn’t know she was once a public figure.”
She taught dancing classes during the day at Santa Fe College and UF when she first arrived here. At night, she went to other classes to learn Jazz, Tap, Modern and Indiana Dance.
“I have combined what I’ve learned with Chinese element and then passed to students. For local students, I want them to know more about Chinese art and culture. And for Chinese students, I want to prepare them to get used to the life here.”
In 1993, she opened her own studio in Downtown Plaza.
“You can never tell this studio is more than 20 years old,” said Zhu. “Sunshine and fragrance are always there. Every time you come in, it is new.”
“I want art to influence every individual. When art is becoming a source of your mental power, you can achieve more and you can be a better person,” she said.
“Working with Liu gave me a stronger body and a stronger mind that I wouldn’t otherwise have been able to possess,” said Casey Lynne Delaney, who graduated from Liu’s studio two years ago and now is in Studio Magenia Paris, as a student and dancer.
“I feel I was like a rough stone that is in the process of polishing to become a jade, from inner part to the appearance,” Zhu said. “That is what ballet and art give me.”
When teaching and leading classes, Liu is not only focused on dancing technique and cultivation of music, but more importantly, the spiritual guidance and communication.
“She has had a huge impact on my life and now, two years later, I’m just beginning to unravel exactly what that impact has been,” Delaney said.
“In her class, she told me to be a smart dancer, not a stupid dancer. That has helped me remain focused and has helped progress and when I was recovering from a stress fracture, it is what helped me return to a certain degree quicker than if I had been the same dancer as before,” she continued.
”In class, she helps me find that I was weak and lacked patience. Through the training, I learned to become calm and strong. And every time I accomplish a new movement, I become more confident,” Zhu said.
Art is not only Liu’s job, but also her whole life.
“Art makes me relaxed. Wherever I am, I am happy. As long as I pack my dancing shoes and clothes and my piano, any place can become my home, because art can take root everywhere,” she said.
“Her life is the same as her art, meticulous but enjoyable,” Zhu said.
In her home, the dancing room and piano occupy much space. Art is everywhere in her room: the French window, artistic photos of different periods and bright floors. However, the most noticeable thing is the picture of her daughter.
“I am very proud of my mom. As a single mom, life is not easy for her. I learn the strength from her,” said Katalya Liu, Feng’s daughter who was born in America. “She brought me art, which is the thing I’ll pursue for the rest of my life.”
When talking about art, Liu has many interesting stories.
“When I was young, a fortune teller told me that I was born to be a communicator of art. And now I am really doing it,” she said.
“For me, she sowed the seed of art in my life. And one day, it will grow from a little tree to a big one, when I can affect others using the power that art gives me,” Zhu said.
Here is one piece of audio of how Feng Liu’s art impacts her daughter, Katalya Liu, and student, Sarah Zhu: