A legacy of culture, community and dance | January 20, 2023 | Pleasanton Weekly | PleasantonWeekly.com |

Pleasanton Weekly

Cover Story - January 20, 2023

A legacy of culture, community and dance

Tri-Valley performing arts school taking to stages across Bay Area for Lunar New Year

by Nicole Gonzales

Across the region, one performing arts group has continued to wow audiences and educate local viewers on various art forms from throughout China's history.

In a rehearsed and intricate manner, the group of students takes to stages in bright and colorful attire to showcase Chinese culture and dance -- this is often the scene created by Xiaopei He Gelb and her dance school pupils.

Founded in 2009, Xiaopei Chinese Dance would be the first to specialize in Chinese dance in the Tri-Valley. Since then, the school has gone on to teach thousands of students in the area with group and solo classes, from ages 4 to adulthood.

This year, the school has already planned several major performances around the Tri-Valley and greater Bay Area. For starters, shows at the Bankhead Theater in Livermore, San Ramon City Center and the East Bay Lunar Gala in Pleasanton are coming up soon among Chinese New Year celebrations.

"Over the past 14 years, I have made so many friends in the area, and have enjoyed so much watching my students grow and blossom," Xiaopei said. "I have met so many nice people who enjoyed our performances, and I believe they learned from our shows to appreciate more about Chinese culture."

The legacy of Xiaopei Chinese Dance began in 2003 when Xiaopei met Andrew Gelb. The two were engaged by 2004 and married in 2005. At the time, Xiaopei had achieved massive success with dancing in her home country of China.

After moving to the Tri-Valley, Xiaopei had become well known by the local Chinese community for her status as a dancer. She recalls how members of the community advocated for her to open a dance studio where their children could learn from her.

"My goals were to share what I had learned from my professional career dancing and performing in China and around the world by teaching authentic, high-quality dance, and by bringing colorful and beautiful Chinese dance performances to the community," she said. "I was able to fill a need and provide what the local community told me they wanted. It gave me the opportunity to share my love for Chinese dance."

In March 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the school turned to online classes which Xiaopei taught via Zoom. Then, the decision was made to close the Pleasanton studio at the end of 2020.

"It of course was not the same as teaching in-person, but the classes were well-received by our students, from children to adults, and by the parents of the students," she recalled.

When in-person classes became an option again, in 2021, Xiaopei Chinese Dance opened a new location in Dublin, very convenient for students who come primarily from Pleasanton, Dublin, San Ramon, Livermore, Castro Valley, Danville and San Leandro.

The students receive not only professional dance training, but acquire lifelong friendships and an appreciation for Chinese culture.

Jenida Yang began at the Xiaopei Chinese Dance school when she was 4 years old. Now 15, Yang discussed the experience of being with the company for so long and how it has changed her.

"My first Dunhuang solo was the turning point for me in my dancing journey. I won my first memorable awards with it, and ever since I've always loved the style and its exotic expression," Yang said. "After so many years of experience, I now understand dance much more and have the capability to bring out greater meaning from it."

"My favorite part about being with my dance group is training, taking classes, competing, and performing with all my classmates and teachers. I hold them very close to my heart; they are almost like my second family," Yang added.

Through dancing, Xiaopei has helped develop a bond between all those who enter the school.

"We all feel like family," 15-year-old Samantha Seiter said. She also first joined when she was just 4.

"Everyone is always supportive of each other and working hard to improve. Learning new dances, performing together, and making new memories brings me so much joy," she added.

Other students, such as Eve Ussery, started out with different types of dance.

"I first tried ballet and tap dancing, but I didn't like to tiptoe dance or the loud shoes of tap," Ussery recalled. "I switched to Chinese dance and loved the elegant music, bright colors and hand and body control."

First joining at 5 years old, the now 11 Ussery has made lifelong connections through her dance team.

"I have made many friends through dance that will be my friends for many years," Ussery said. "Together with my team we work with the teachers to make beautiful dances and perform in exciting shows. I couldn't ask for anything more."

Student Kelly Ma spoke about the significance of the dance company's cultural performance art. The 11-year-old described the Xiaopei Chinese Dance school learning environment as amazing, productive and welcoming.

"Ever since I was young, I believed that Chinese dance was very special and unique," Ma said. "It feels special to me and makes me feel like I'm in my own world while performing."

Out of all the dance styles in her skillset, including Russian ballet, Chinese classical and Chinese folk dance, Xiaopei said she does not have a favorite.

"Many of the provinces in China have their unique styles of dance and costumes and I actually love all of them," she said.

Since its opening, Xiaopei Chinese Dance has had the goal of entertaining the public while also educating and promoting the appreciation of various cultures. The school has since gone on to inspire generations of dancers and performances.

"I am often asked 'what is Chinese dance?' and the best way I know to answer that question is to show them," Xiaopei said. "Through my school, I get to watch my students dance better and with more confidence as they progress semester to semester and year to year."

Andrew Gelb, who helped to open the dance studio, shares the same pride and fulfillment as his wife.

"Seeing her with her students, especially the little ones and the teenagers, just fills my heart," Andrew said. "She is so happy teaching and encouraging and the way the kids respond to her is really something to see."

"I have watched my wife devote herself to thousands of students and their parents so that the students grow and mature and become talented and confident dancers and performers, and have fun," he added.

Looking toward the future, the Gelbs hope their community and dance school continues to grow.

"I have watched many of my students win awards at dance competitions all over the Bay Area, even after the younger ones grow up and go on to college and beyond," Xiaopei said.

"I see them become dance team members and leaders wherever they go and it makes me so happy when they continue to share what they learned," she added.

The Xiaopei Chinese Dance will be performing at Chinese New Year events across the region.

This Saturday from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., the group will dance at the Bankhead Theater in Livermore as part of the venue's free Lunar New Year celebration.

The following day, Sunday (Jan. 22) from 2-4 p.m., the school will take part in another Lunar New Year celebration at the City Center Bishop Ranch in San Ramon.

Then, as part of the 5th East Bay Lunar New Year Gala, students will showcase their skills at the Pleasanton Crosspoint Church next Sunday (Jan. 29) at 7 p.m.

To learn more about these and other Xiaopei Chinese Dance performances coming up, visit Xpdance.com.


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