Sun, May 28, 2017 - Page 8 News List

Born to groove

Tsai Jui-yueh dedicated her entire adult life to promoting contemporary dance in Taiwan, carrying on after the government tore her family apart and threw her in jail

By Han Cheung  /  Staff reporter

Tsai Jui-yueh is considered a pioneer of Taiwan’s contemporary dance scene.

Photo courtesy of the Tsai Jui-yueh Foundation

May 29 to June 4

Tsai Jui-yueh (蔡瑞月) practiced her dance steps diligently on the deck of the ship taking her from Tokyo back to Taiwan. World War II had ended about a year previously, and Tsai gave up a chance for a personal recital in Tokyo to catch the last ride home.

“I didn’t care if other passengers thought I was crazy,” she says in Prophet of Taiwan Dance — An Oral History by Tsai Jui-Yueh (台灣舞蹈的先知 – 蔡瑞月口述史). “I couldn’t wait to get home to perform, to choreograph, to teach.”

During high school, Tsai heard a Japanese person describe Taiwan as a “barren desert for dance.”

“I never turned down a show after I got back because I was determined to spread the seeds of dance all over Taiwan,” she says.

Little did she know that Taiwan would not be kind to her.


A few years earlier, members of Tsai’s dance troupe were struggling to climb up a snow-covered slope in 30 degrees below zero temperatures in the Kuril Islands.

Tsai’s teacher Ishii Midori recalls, “Tsai suddenly took her shoes off and ran barefoot like a madwoman up the hill. I’ll never forget that scene.”

The introduction to Tsai’s book states that it was this “innocence and passion” that drove Tsai to defy societal expectations and become the pioneer of modern dance in Taiwan.

“Before the field of creative dance even existed in Taiwan, Tsai already knew that she wanted to study in Japan and catch up on the latest trends from the West,” Ishii says. “Back then, this was a groundbreaking decision.”

Growing up in Tainan in the 1920s, Tsai says she would find joy in moving her body rhythmically.

“I didn’t do it because someone taught me, or because there was music playing as record players were rare back then,” she recalls. “I had no idea that this was called ‘dancing.’”

There were few opportunities during that era, and Tsai’s favorite moment during elementary school was a weekly aerobic dance class that she excelled in. During high school, she risked punishment and attended dance performances by Japanese troupes whenever she could. Her first performance was during a school fair, where she drew resentment from her classmates for being able to carry out the most difficult moves with ease despite not being an official member of the dance club.

Western contemporary dance took root in Japan after Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova performed The Dying Swan there in 1922. After almost a year of persuasion, Tsai’s father finally allowed her to head to Japan.

“On the ship, I was summoned by the captain for questioning, as he found that it was unusual that someone would go to Japan to study dance,” she recalls. “He thought I had run away from home.”

World War II provided an opportunity for Tsai to see the world. She participated in several extended tours to entertain Japanese troops. She wasn’t scared going to all these combat zones, stating that she was too young to know the horrors of war and death — until a car accident landed her in the hospital in Yangon where she saw buckets of amputated limbs.


Tsai turned down Ishii’s offer to organize a personal recital for her after the war and headed home.

She started teaching at her alma mater in Tainan and was also invited to perform around the country for the newly-arrived Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) troops. Her popularity grew, completing many highly acclaimed performances in Taipei to great fanfare. She never turned down a show, performing tirelessly in theaters, schools, churches, factories, parks, beaches and more.

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