How Choreographer and Artistic Director Dana Tai Soon Burgess Uses Dance to Move Between Cultural Worlds

July 11, 2023

For me, dance is a universal language through which I can communicate my inner landscape. All of human­ity danced before we had written or even spoken language. We inherently understand the postures, gestures, and rhythms of the body. These can express happiness, sadness, and even resilience of the spirit.

I’m a fourth-generation Korean American. I grew up in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in a Hispanic neighborhood, attending bilingual Spanish and English schools by day while experiencing a very Asian American experience at home. My best friends were American Indian, Hispanic, and Asian American. Early on, I learned to move between different cultural worlds by embracing one concerted language: dance. Movement became my primary, galvanizing mode of communication. Through dance I expressed how I perceive the world.

As a young dancer I studied ballet, modern dance, jazz, and even martial arts. As I grew older, I developed a movement style that embraces all these forms. When I began choreographing, I founded a company of diverse dancers, Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company. My dancers also speak my language, and add their unique cultural experiences to the interpretation of my choreographies.

I still feel invigorated in the studio. This is my sacred space where I can express my memories, emotions, and life experiences. I develop dances that express unique stories that celebrate the tribulations and triumphs of our shared human experience.
My feeling about and dedication to dance have deepened over the decades. At moments of fatigue, dancing rejuvenates my body and my mind.

Now, I often ruminate on the fact that dance is passed down from generation to generation—teacher to student. You can’t learn to be a professional dancer through a YouTube video or TikTok. I thoroughly enjoy choreographing, teaching, and coaching a new generation of dancers and celebrate how the journey of passing on physical knowledge from one dancer to another continues. Although I do not perform anymore, I am deeply thankful to continue to be in the studio alongside professionals in their prime. I now understand the field from multiple vantage points.

When I’m asked to give advice to a young dancer, I tell them to nurture what is unique about their life and to explore how this informs their dancing. An honest understanding of the self will allow you to dance for a lifetime.