PeiJu Chien-Pott rehearsing in Beijing for the role of Xiao Lian in Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise. Photo by An Rong Xu

What This Graham Star Learned from Training in Martial Arts for a New Akram Khan-Choreographed Show

When dancers kick their legs, they typically try to avoid hitting their colleagues. But the performers in the upcoming show Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise, choreographed by Akram Khan, have had to train to do just the opposite.

"It's not a grand battement. You're kicking someone's face. It has to have intention," says Martha Graham Dance Company star PeiJu Chien-Pott, who plays the role of Xiao Lian, a mother fighting to protect her family.


At the same time, the trick of performing martial arts onstage is, of course, to not actually hurt the other person. To pull this off convincingly, the six lead performers recently spent two weeks in Beijing training with a kung fu master. Chien-Pott shared with Dance Magazine what she got took away from the experience.

Close-up of PeiJu Chien-Pott weilding her sword

PeiJu Chien-Pott rehearsing in Beijing, with director Chen Shi-Zheng and martial arts assistant, Child G, in the background.

An Rong Xu

Becoming One with a Knife

The type of martial arts she studied is called bagua, which was developed in the mountains of China.

"Each of the main characters has a different superpower, different weapons that he or she's good at," says Chien-Pott. "My weapon is a long, metal knife. Ideally, I'll make it look like part of my limb."

The show's director Chen Shi-Zheng and master martial arts choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping sent her a video from 1983 of a woman moving so fluidly that the knife looks like it weighs no more than a feather. "That's my reference—that's my goal."

What She's Learned

It turns out that kung fu is ultimately less physical than Chien-Pott assumed.

"It's about speed and control and eye contact," she says. "The master told me that eye contact takes 60 percent of the effort, the body movement takes 40 percent. It's about pulling the audience in with intention and strong focus."

Chien-Pott realized it's also about taking pauses between movements to breathe and let the audience digest what just happened. "Learning this technique taught me to be patient; naturally, I always want to keep moving. But then it just looks like messy street fighting."

The Challenges

The training didn't come easily: Over the course of two weeks in Beijing, Chien-Pott sprained both an inner thigh muscle and an ankle.

The other unexpected difficulty? Getting her knife back home. "Well before even entering the airport I was called and asked, what is that for?" (She ended up having to wrap it with towels and ship it back to New Jersey).

What's Next

The bulk of rehearsals for the production don't start until May (for a July premiere), so in the meantime, Chien-Pott is practicing sequences on her own to increase her arm and wrist strength, and to maintain the martial arts movements in her muscle memory.

But she's not done learning new skills. Next up? Aerial silks.

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Rachel Papo

Our 8 Best Pointe Shoe Hacks

It turns out that TikTok is good for more than just viral dance challenges. Case in point: We recently stumbled across this genius pointe shoe hack for dancers with narrow heels.

Dancers are full of all kinds of crafty tricks to make their pointe shoes work for them. But don't fear: You don't need to spend hours scrolling TikTok to find the best pro tips. We rounded up a few of our favorites published in Dance Magazine over the years.

If your vamp isn't long enough, sew an elastic on top of your metatarsals.

Last year, Pacific Northwest Ballet principal Elizabeth Murphy admitted to us that her toes used to flop all the way out of her shoes when she rose up onto pointe(!). "I have really long toes and stock shoes never had a vamp long enough," she says.

Her fix? Sewing a piece of elastic (close to the drawstring but without going through it) at the top of the vamp for more support...and also special-ordering higher vamps.

Solve corns with toe socks

Nashville Ballet's Sarah Cordia told us in 2017 that toe socks are her secret weapon: "I get soft corns in between my toes because I have sweaty feet. Wearing toe socks helps keep that area dry. I found a half-toe sock called 'five-toe heelless half-boat socks' that I now wear in my pointe shoes."

(For other padding game-changers, check out these six ideas.)

Save time by recycling ribbons and elastics.

Don't waste time measuring new ribbons and elastics for every pair. Washington Ballet dancer Ashley Murphy-Wilson told us that she keeps and cycles through about 10 sets of ribbons and crisscross elastics. "It makes sewing new pairs easier because the ribbons and elastic are already at the correct length," she says. Bonus: This also makes your pointe shoe habit more environmentally friendly.

Close-up of hands sewing a pointe shoe.

Murphy-Wilson sewing her shoes

xmbphotography, by Mena Brunette, courtesy The Washington Ballet

Tie your drawstring on demi-pointe.

In 2007, New York City Ballet's Megan Fairchild gave us this tip for making sure her drawstring stays tight: "I always tie it in demi-pointe because that is when there's the biggest gap and where there's the most bagginess on the side."

Find a stronger thread.

When it comes to keeping your ribbons on, function trumps form—audiences won't be able to see your stitches from the stage. Many dancers use floss as a stronger, more secure alternative to thread. Fairchild told us she uses thick crochet thread. "Before I go onstage I sew a couple of stitches in the knot of the ribbon to tack the ends," she says. "I do a big 'X.' I have to make sure it's perfect because I'm in it for the show. It's always the very last thing I do."

Don't simply reorder your shoes on autopilot.

Even as adults, our feet keep growing and spreading as we age. Atlanta podiatrist Frank Sinkoe suggests going to a professional pointe shoe fitter at least once a year to make sure you're in the right shoe.

You might even need different sizes at different times of the year, says New York City Ballet podiatric consultant Thomas Novella. During busy periods and in warm weather, your feet might be bigger than during slow periods in the winter. Have different pairs ready for what your feet need now.

Fit *both* feet.

Don't forget that your feet might even be two different sizes. "If you're getting toenail bruises, blood blisters or other signs of compression, but only on one foot, have someone check each foot's size," Novella says. The solution? Buy two pairs at a time—one for the right foot and one for the left.

Wash off the sweat.

Blisters thrive in a sweaty pointe shoe. Whenever you can, take your feet out of your shoes between rehearsals and give them a quick rinse off in the sink. "If feet sweat, they should be washed periodically during the day with soap and water and dried well, especially between the toes," says Sinkoe.