All 17 faces of the 2nd hour Chinese class look to the front of the room as a small, spritely woman clears her throat to speak. Chinese teacher Hau-In Lau pulls her long black hair back from her face and begins.
“The cabaret is coming up,” Lau says. “Think of this as an opportunity . . . opportunity to connect with a Chinese character.”
Lau announces that they’re going to the stage gym to practice. She points to the boys who’ve offered to carry the fabric dragon. “Follow the dragon boys.”
The Chinese Cabaret is part of the Chinese New Year Banquet hosted by the Center for International Studies (CIS). The Center for International Studies is a language program at Shawnee Mission South where students can intensively study Arabic, Chinese, Japanese or Russian.
The banquet is a fundraising event whose proceeds pay for travel and activities for the CIS and East Chinese students. East is the only other school in the district to offer Chinese and they’ve gone on two trips to China with CIS in years past.
Each year, the CIS seniors organize the Chinese New Year celebration so their classmates can showcase their skills. Lau teaches at both CIS and East, so she was excited about the two programs working together.
CIS senior Miles Simpson is one of the organizers of the event. He went on one of the trips two years ago when they went to tour southern China. Simpson hopes the fundraiser can be successful enough to help others have the chance to connect with the culture and be fully immersed in the language.
Senior Nicole Prenevost is thrilled to work with the CIS students because of their enthusiasm.
“They’re so intense and passionate about what they’re doing,” Prenevost said. “It’s great to get together with more people who love Chinese.”
Down in the stage gym, the class eagerly sifts through their bags of costumes—beaded headdresses are tried on, yellow silk robes are admired and embroidered sashes are tied. The students are brought back to dress-up time as kids. Suddenly they’re swirling their sleeves, using lantern rods as samurai swords and spin-kicking each other.
Then, Lau calls out “Listen! Line up!” And they move towards one end of the basketball court. In a row along the white end line, they stand as a team. Except they’re not players but a cast of characters. They each represent a piece of Chinese history, from a Ming Dynasty scholar to a woman from the Republic of China. They read their lines, first in Chinese then in English. All the costume-induced giggles are gone and they’re focused. As they recite, Lau interjects “Xiao!” Smile.
Prenevost explained that this is their first chance to share what they’ve learned this year. That’s why they take so much care with their lines. Prenevost said it’s been a long but fascinating process learning Chinese pronunciation. Chinese has more consonants than English so there are many combinations to learn to recognize.
After they carefully run through their lines, they break off into groups—the girls go to practice their lantern dance and the boys go to practice their dragon dance.
Each of the girls picks up a red lantern hanging from a wooden rod and they take their positions— all holding their lanterns perfectly still.
The music starts scratching out from the old CD player and all at once the girls start to sway. Lau notices their solemn looks. “Xiao!” They take a few synchronized turns and set down the lanterns on the edges of their circle. The girls form two lines and start weaving back and forth to the tune of what now sounds like an Irish reel.
The 1st hour Chinese class is learning to dance as well but they have an additional task: singing. The two songs they’re working on are “The Moon Represents My Heart,” a ‘80s classic Chinese love ballad by Teresa Tong, and “Manly Man,” the Chinese version of “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” from Disney’s “Mulan.”
They run half-heartedly run through “The Moon Represents My Heart,” but as the first familiar notes of “Manly Man” start to play they find their energy. For this song they’re all relaxed—they try to hit the high notes and aren’t embarrassed if they miss. Junior Susie McClannahan said the class enjoys their second song because “it’s from ‘Mulan’, so what’s not to like?”
McClannahan said the practice has been more than a chance to reconnect with Disney favorites; it’s been a chance to connect with each other.
“[The cabaret] has got everyone communicating more,” McClannahan said. “Now we have to actually chill and work with each other instead of just being in class.”
After they run through both songs it’s down to the stage gym to practice the Taiwanese Aboriginal Dance. Their costumes are simpler than those of the other class—red cotton skirts, pants and blouses and red-feathered headdresses. They line up and run to the other side of the gym in a winding train as the music starts. They take their first steps, tentatively yet in unison.
Lau watches them dance. She smiles when they hit a step right and looks over with concern when they’re frustrated. Lau knows firsthand what it’s like learning a Chinese dance.
Last March, Lau was asked to be a part of a dance for the Ethnic Enrichment Commission (EEC) of Kansas City’s Diplomatic Ball. The EEC is made up of organizations representing minority groups in the city and it works to support all cultural activities.
Lau had never performed Chinese dances before that March, so when she was first asked she was as hesitant as her students. Representatives from the consulates of 66 nations and leaders of cultural groups from around the city attended the ball—over 600 people in all. Lau recalls her nerves when she was performing. She tries to both tell them how to improve and compliment them as they practice. “With more pow, be more deliberate!” “Good, good job!”
Lau feels the cabaret has helped to strengthen ties between CIS and East. The two schools have met at South for rehearsals in which they decide on blocking and work on blending their voices together into one chorus.
She hopes that learning the dances and songs will give them a personal tie to the culture of China and help them care about continuing their learning.
At 7:30 p.m. on the day of the cabaret large red lanterns hang from the ceiling of the South cafeteria and candles glimmer on every table. The students wait just outside the cafeteria doors. They’re anxious to start–they’ve been here rehearsing since 1:30 p.m. The guests look towards the podium as CIS senior Celeste Banks takes the podium, clears her throat “The Chinese New Year is one of the most treasured celebrations in Chinese culture,” Banks said. “It’s customary to reunite with family and friends and have a joyous celebration. We’ve reunited as a big family, so now it’s time to start our joyous celebration.” And with that the first song begins.