Although choreographer Sorah Yang travels the world teaching her power-packed style of hip hop, runs her own company and was featured by Dance Magazine as one of our "25 to Watch" this year, she is often underestimated because of the way she looks. Throughout her career, she has spoken out against the racism and misogyny that devalue Asian women. The current rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) has strengthened her resolve to raise her voice for social change.
She recently spoke with Dance Magazine about her experiences with prejudice and how she uses dance to spread her message.
How do you see dance fitting into larger conversations about racism?
When someone shares their story through dance, there's something so powerful and real about it. It helps illustrate the humanity behind these social justice issues, which helps others gain empathy for people's different experiences, so they finally see the need for change. To be fair, it's not 100 percent up to dancers to save the world. But art really does heal society.
Sometimes I get discouraged by how small I feel in relation to the universe. I'll think, What is a dance video going to do to fight systemic racism? It can be hard to tackle, but if I scale it down, I realize that these conversations about anti-Asian violence and about the intersection of misogyny and racism connect to my own experience as an Asian woman. The microaggressions I've experienced my entire life aren't just rude remarks here and there. They lend to the invisibility and disposability of women and can evolve into the worst-case scenario, which we've recently witnessed: the murder of Asian women.
On Instagram, you recently alluded to the microaggressions you've faced. Can you elaborate on your experiences as a dancer?
My dancing has always been shaped by how I feel internally, which is strong and capable. But my external appearance as an Asian woman means I am perceived by American society very differently. We have these prejudices that Asian women are all submissive, obedient, weak—things I don't identify with. I was raised thinking I can do anything, and that's how I dance. I've always felt comfortable expressing myself through powerful, hard-hitting, fast choreography, qualities that are traditionally, for whatever reason, associated with "male" dancing, whatever that means.
Throughout the years, whenever I share my faster pieces online, there's always comments accusing me of speeding it up. But I rarely see male choreographers getting accused of altering their work.
Stature also comes into play—I'm 5 feet tall. I've walked onto sets as the choreographer, but no one on the production staff talks to me and instead defers to a tall, male dancer when I'm literally standing right there. I've had other experiences as a choreographer, like getting pet on the head by a dancer while he said, "You're so cute," as if he were talking to a baby or puppy. It feels dehumanizing and condescending. It reminds me that even if I am the authority in the room, people are not used to seeing someone who looks like me in that way.
You are constantly reminded of how others see you based on these microaggressions, and it's always at war with what you know to be true of yourself. But that's why it's so important for me to continue even when I doubt myself because I understand what I represent. I am an Asian woman who is a leader, a choreographer, a business owner. It's not common, and that needs to change.
Courtesy Sorah Yang
In what ways have you used dance to help enact change?
On an artistic level, I think just continuing to be fully myself is important because I still don't see enough people who look like me in influential spaces and mainstream culture. I can yell from the rooftops that I'm strong and capable, but it's hard to convince people just by saying it. If I can show people through my art, hopefully that can shift their perspectives, and that can be a catalyst for actual change.
I never felt like dance was my sole or end purpose. I've always felt like dance is the vehicle for creating the change I want to see. I've joked that I use dance to trick people into following me online, and once they do, we can talk about social change, community service, women empowerment. Obviously, I love dance and care about it deeply. But I also want to use dance as a vessel to enact positive change in my community.
When the pandemic first started, I used my platform to raise money to get masks out to essential workers. Recently my dance company assembled 500 care kits for people experiencing homelessness. My creative projects are always message-driven. I don't want to just use my platform to serve myself. I want to use it to impact the world positively.
How have you turned to dance in light of the recent rise in anti-AAPI hate crimes and the tragic murders in Georgia?
Dance is so therapeutic. It's my meditation and release. It has always been a way for me to conquer a lot of doubts and insecurities. Right now, I feel empowered to be louder, stand firmer, and be more confident about the things that I've always tried to share through my art. In the past, I spread messages about my experience as an Asian woman, being underestimated and promoting female empowerment because I knew there were girls out there who could relate, and it could empower others to speak their truths as well. The difference now is that people who aren't just women, or Asian women, are listening. It's unfortunately because something so tragic happened.
I'm proud that a lot of the Asian community finally feels empowered to speak on our experiences with racism in America, something a lot of us didn't feel comfortable speaking about before because it felt like no one cared or believed us.
What can the dance community do to help bring change?
I feel like there is still a drastic lack of Asian representation when it comes to faculty and performers at certain types of dance events, conventions, competitions and definitely the commercial industry. We do not exist just to be hired for the Lunar New Year special, and I'm using this example because this happened to me. We are perfectly capable for dance jobs, period. Where there is lack of representation, there is an opportunity to be the person to change that.
Is there anything you'd like to say to AAPI dancers?
Let's continue to be proudly ourselves and take up space by expressing ourselves loudly, authentically and unapologetically. There's been growing discussions lately about how Asians are not a monolith. Tell your stories as truthfully as possible, because then people will be able to see the nuances of our experiences and understand that we're not all the same. Our stories are diverse, have depth, and they deserve to take up space.