To conclude the Arts Faculty Spotlights of the semester, visiting professor of dance Sharon Wong spoke to The Anchor. She teaches jazz and modern dance in the fall and choreographs for Hope College’s pre-professional dance companies H2 and Strike Time. She shared many of her professional experiences with being a dancer, choreographer and dance teacher, as well as what brought her to Hope College.
How did your involvement with dance begin?
I always say it is by accident, but there are no accidents in the universe. I was born in the UK and raised there, and when I was five my mom stuck me in dance because I had complete rotation in and out of my hip sockets. Rather than having it surgically [fixed], she stuck me in ballet classes. That actually strengthened my hips and legs so I could walk and run normally.
Did you keep dancing all throughout high school?
When I started dancing, all of my instructors had danced with the Les Ballets Russes de Monte-Carlo in England. We immigrated here because my mom got headhunted. I danced my whole life until I got [to Hope], and I took a year off because, when we arrived here, it was 1967, which was the tail end of the civil rights movement. It was a difficult time for people like myself who were mixed-breed children who were from other parts of the world. Difficult in the sense that those who looked like us had difficulties because we spoke differently.
So I started taking ballet classes close to the school that I went to in New York. I was told by this woman that Black bodies weren’t made for ballet, and I had never been told that before, so I was looking at her like she was stupid. Although she [thought that], she had me teaching classes for her. [One evening] I got real cross because it was something she said all of the time, so I went and put my Catholic school uniform on and walked out in a huff [while] she was still in her studio. I went home, and my mom was confused by why I was home so early because that was rare for me. I didn’t dance for a year after that. And then, I started going to the old Ailey school and I fell in love with dance again, and I fell in love with the principles of modern dance.
How about college?
I always knew that I was going to go to NYU or McGill; those were the only two colleges I wanted and applied for. Thank God, I got accepted by both. My parents told me I was going to get a degree in pharmacology, and my grandparents told me that I was going to get a law degree. In my head, I knew it wasn’t going to happen, but I had no clue. I knew that what they wanted me to do was not what I wanted, but I could have been good at either because I love school.
I auditioned [for NYU] on a dare from my best friend. She gave me the information, and I went to the audition. At the end, I knew that I had a place come the fall semester. But the thing is, I went to the audition while I was a junior in high school. There were things that I wanted to do, and I wanted to get on with my life — I was that kind of person. I walked out of there so excited, and when I got in the shower in the dressing room I thought, “Oh crap,” because I had to tell my mom and my grandparents. My grandfather was supportive; my mom asked me [multiple times,] “Who’s paying for this?” My grandmother was just shaking her head, ranting in Cantonese.
So I graduated high school, Catholic high school mind you, at the end of my junior year. My classes were all advanced classes and I went to summer school twice because I love school. I loved NYU, and I graduated at the end of my junior year from college as well. I really had the most incredible dance instructors my whole life. I have been really fortunate and pleased. I have been mucking around with a B.F.A. for the last hundred thousand years!
Did you have certain guiding principles that lead you through your career or did many things just fall into place?
I think it is a little bit of both. While I was in college, I started working with the Rod Rodgers Dance Company. I started as an apprentice, I think it was my sophomore year, and I danced with him the whole year while I was going to school full time. I am still friends with someone who was in his company.
He sat me down one day and he asked me what I wanted to do with my dance, and I said, “Everything.” He said that I can’t do it all at the same time, and I recognized that. He asked me if someone were to want me to dance in their company, and if I take the job and get there to find that I don’t like the work, what would I do then? And I got it. I [realized] that I will investigate and do my research before I say yes [to a job].
I learned a lot from those who went ahead of me, and I learned from observing and listening a lot. Every young dancer wants to do it all, and I realized at a very young age that that’s fine, but one has to be smart about saying yes to everything. So it is a little bit of both. If there is something that really pulls at me, I’ll do it. I have done a lot of gigs where I didn’t get paid or hardly did, and I had that experience, which wasn’t the issue. The issue is that I just want to learn so much. It is a different time now, I don’t think there is as much available for [this] generation as there was for mine.
For four or five years, I got to dance with Nat Horne, who had his own theatre on theater row in New York. It was a jazz company. I got to dance with Alfred “Pepsi” Bethel. Everything I learned about period work I learned from the best of the best. I got to do so many things in my teens.
Did you ever see yourself returning to higher education and teaching or did that also just fall into place?
I always say that I fell into higher education by accident, but again, there are no accidents in the universe. The short version, you never know who is looking at you, and how they are looking at you. When I was doing my choreography, many movers and shakers in the dance world would come and support me. Before Pepsi [Bethel] passed away he came and talked to me once and asked me what about the future. I said that I hadn’t gotten that far, cause I hadn’t. Before he passed away he was teaching at City College, and I knew he was there, but I was just rehearsing in the afternoons with him and teaching here and there.
I was really connected [to City College] through old ballet masters and friends, and I got a call that they were looking for faculty and Pepsi recommended me. That’s how I ended up at City College. I was there for five years. They were very flexible in the sense of whenever I got something that took me away, and eventually I [moved on].
I realized there are so many different cultures — we’re human beings, and humans are nurtured by love and understanding and growth. Dance and music and art is part of that. It is like a universal language.
You’ve had this wealth of experience in the dance world and all around the world. What made you come to Hope?
Maxine DeBryun brought me to Hope. Maxine brought me to Hope in 2003 for a May term, and it was funny because we spent a week [playing phone tag] and Maxine is no joke. I was really busy at that time: I was rehearsing at Ailey and teaching four classes, I was on the executive board and taught for the B.F.A program, and I taught the professional and junior division program.
The next two years, Maxine called me and wanted me to come, but I was already contracted to things outside of Ailey and she was not happy with me. I recommended other people for two years in a row. But Maxine was like, “I want you,” and that was pretty much the end of it.
So she hired me and re-hired me and then Matthew Farmer re-hired me as well. I am thankful; I have met some incredible people here, many of whom have retired. Many of them had friends and places in common, and I didn’t know them until I came here. It is a big world and a small world at the same time. There are people here that I absolutely adore and have the pleasure of working shoulder to shoulder with, and I don’t say things that I don’t mean.
Do you feel like your relationships and people are keeping you here? What is making you stay?
The fact and the quality of students in the Dance Department. They are so talented, and they don’t realize how talented and gifted they are in other aspects as well. It has been an incredible ride. These students are so hard-working and determined — really old school in a lot of ways. They want it, you know? They are very quiet about it, but when it clicks and they decide that they want it then they ask questions and seek me out. I will say that this is a different time we are in now [compared] to when I was coming up. Nothing has changed that much; you still have to bring your A-game.
Phildanco recently came to [The Knickerbocker Theatre]. All of the company trains at Ailey but there was a specific group of them that I knew since they were 13 or 14 because they took classes with me and a few of them I knew their parents. Just seeing them for me was a shot in the arm because they are just so beautiful.
Joan Myers Brown, at the masterclass [Hope students took] that morning said to me, “The kids here are good, they’re strong, it’s incredible.” She asked me why, and I told her they have an incredible Dance faculty. She said that the dancers were strong because she watched the master class. And that’s what it is all about because you can tell whether or not it works because you take a masterclass, and you’re being complimented in your placement, the quality of your dance.
I would tell Maxine and Linda [Graham] that Hope College’s Dance Department is the world’s best-kept secret. It really is. And I would say it repeatedly. Because if you Maxine came to get me from Ailey, for whatever reason. So I stay because I am offered the opportunity, for one, but I stay also because the dancers are young, and they want it, and they are willing to work hard and they are incredible. To see them grow consistently and significantly — it doesn’t get any better than that.