Photo Credit: Paul Dimalanta

Jessica Chen had been dancing her entire life.  But after a vote of confidence from her teacher at Alvin Ailey and Broadway Dance Center, dance became her life.

Born to Taiwanese parents in Hacienda Heights, California, dancer/choreographer Jessica Chen can actually trace her roots all the way back to mainland China.

“I started dancing as a child because I was forced into going to Chinese school every Saturday.   I wanted to fit in with everyone else, but my parents wanted me to learn Chinese, so the first dance I learned was actually a lot of Chinese folk dance –which taught me to learn about and appreciate my culture.”

Her love for dance grew during her high school years, as she started taking dance more seriously – as both a cheerleader and member of an all-star dance team.  As a student at the University of California Santa Barbara, Jessica discovered modern dance – hip hop, jazz – and Alvin Ailey.

“One of my teachers took us to a modern dance class. We watched the class, and then watched a documentary about Alvin Ailey, and I was blown away,” she told us. “Up until then, I thought of dance as this exclusively physical talent that I had to entertain and have fun, but when I watched the film, that’s when it came to me that dance was an art form.  Alvin Ailey’s approach to dance really inspired me.”

Encouraged by a mentor to immerse herself in a city with a strong arts community – Jessica set off to New York, where she auditioned for and was accepted to the Alvin Ailey and Broadway Dance Center.

“Ailey can be difficult because the teachers have so many students and, as a dance student, you really yearn for your teacher’s attention.

But when Jessica caught the attention of Earl Moseley – an instructor who teaches the Horton Technique –it was a moment that changed her life.

“Earl Moseley made me demonstrate [the technique] in my first class.  When he singled me out, it totally made my day. It reassured me that I belonged there, that I really was a dancer, and it made me want to work harder and learn more.”

And now, through her New York-based company, The J. Chen Project, Jessica Chen is not only entertaining audiences, but she’s creating a space for emerging choreographers and artistic directors to create and inspire others.

“Creating a career as a dancer is not easy – talent is only the first step. You also need luck, and you need certain people to give you that encouragement. Having Earl Moseley notice me propelled me to keep going. I have had certain people offer me small gestures of inspiration all along the way and that’s all I needed, and now I want to give that back to my creative community. “

One of the ways The J. Chen Project gives back is through its signature Salon Series, which is a collection of video interviews featuring prominent members of the dance community.  In the videos, the dance “mentors” are seen speaking to aspiring dancers, and program directors – advising the young dancers on how to navigate their careers.

“The videos offer me a way to give back to emerging artists and also give me an opportunity to interview some of the people who’ve influenced me,” she said. “Hearing the advice and information they share is also good for me to hear, again, too!”

The videos, such as the one seen here, are posted on The J. Chen Project website on a weekly basis – every Thursday.

The J. Chen Project also encourages audience participation in their productions, through a unique mask workshop series – for which students at Cornell University recently honored Jessica.

“We produced a show about masks and the labels that we wear in society called “To Identify,” and I wanted to find a way to bring about audience participation,” she told us.  “We hosted mask-making workshops involving people from all walks of life and we incorporated the masks into the show as a sea of hanging masks.  The audience can now come in and see their masks hanging when they enter the auditorium.  It’s full-circle engagement with the audience which was what I was hoping to achieve.”

As Jessica continuously finds ways to creatively engage her audience, she is also seeking out opportunities to engage the Asian artist community.

“Growing up in the US with an Asian background, I’m now finding that I’m drawing from those influences and incorporating into my work now Spent some time in China and made me think of my culture and history, in NYC I looked around at the Asian community, not an abundance of Asian choreographers and artistic directors, so I decided to curate a show called ‘Translate – the Voices of Emerging Asian Choreographers’ which is a place for them to show their work in front of a live audience, “she shared. “Translate is a great opportunity for us to start a dialogue with artists amongst each  other about what it’s like to have a career as a choreographer and try to find ways to build the Asian dance community.”

From developing a love for her culture through dance, to empowering others to express their culture through dance, Jessica Chen is an artist and entrepreneur who has truly come full-circle.

“I believe in the power of dance to move people physically and emotionally.  To be able to take influences from my culture and bring into my stories now is really fun and exciting for me.”

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