It's often tough for a dancer to step away or retire, and Ye Li certainly misses performing, even as he and his wife teach young people at the Oregon International Ballet Academy in Beaverton.
"Really sad," Li says. "But teaching kids makes me happy."
Actually, it was either going to be Li or his wife, Oregon Ballet Theatre principal dancer Xuan Cheng, who would retire and take on the most prominent role with the Oregon International Ballet Academy. Cheng still performs with OBT, most recently in "The Americans." So you know who retired, it was Li from OBT four years ago.
"It still feels amazing to dance, but not just for the mind but for the body, too," adds Li, 35. "I love to teach. We don't really have kids, yet, but you see kids teaching them every day, and they change and listen to what you say, you're helping them and you can see the result. Sometimes they surprise us and make our day."
While Li teaches the more advanced dancers and adults at the school, Cheng works with youngsters. And she enjoys it, even as Cheng continues her own stellar career.
"I basically teach all levels, but Ye is more focused on the advanced level, where they focus on technique, musicality and getting more fun and crazy, which is his specialty," says Cheng, 34.
They each joined OBT in 2011, and after Li retired they put focus on the school.
Both originally from China, they grew up around instructors, but never really envisioned being teachers. The older they got, the more appealing it became.
"It's because of timing," Cheng says. "During the 2013-14 (OBT) season, after Christopher (Stowell, artistic director) left and the school director left, there was a leadership change. The school needed teachers. They asked dancers who was willing to teach, and we said, 'OK we'll do it.'
"We felt at that time we were mature enough and needed experience. That's how we started teaching, we taught after work. ... Even before that, I was volunteering to create dance for the Chinese community for the Chinese New Year."
Parents they knew encouraged them to open their own school. They eventually launched Oregon International Ballet Academy and worked together, and they school about 50 students currently.
"We had all this experience, why not pass it on to the next generation?" Cheng says. "We feel like we love to teach the kids, and they're good kids. We both enjoy teaching them. I feel very proud. We're doing good stuff, and parents are very supportive."
It's a married couple working together; things do get tense sometimes.
"Well, we fight, of course, because we want to figure out things," Li says. "Ballet is not a formula, it's not from a textbook. Individual people have individual bodies, and they're all different and we're the teachers. It's our job to figure it out and help individual kids.
"We have fun times and some times we fight and scream," as a couple, all with the intention of doing the best for the kids, he adds.
The couple teaches dancers from around the Portland area, including Vancouver, Beaverton, Hillsboro and Lake Oswego. Cheng emphasizes bringing out the beauty of ballet and passion and love from students.
"It's not just learning steps but what's behind it and what it means and how to make it better," she says. "We try to teach them base skills, and want them to get older and be a dancer and artist. That's why we're asking a lot of questions in class and want them to explain things. 'Why are we doing this?' We want them to react, want them to know everything is both ways: what you receive and what you give. We want to bring out their personalities, too."
Says Li: "There's a huge difference between students and dancers. Every day you come here, you take the class and train technique, but it's how to enjoy this."
Cheng says it's a busy schedule to dance for OBT and teach at her Oregon International Ballet Academy. But it's worth it.
"Teaching makes me a better dancer," she says. "Sometimes I'm so exhausted ... a dancer's life can be very one direction, so focused, you're in that environment and sometimes you're exhausted after work, and you always have ups and downs at work. Then you go to school and teach them and they give me energy. It's made my life more balanced."
The Oregon International Ballet Academy is located in the Cedar Hills Shopping Center at 10226 S.W. Park Way in Beaverton. The school is accepting registration for its Summer Intensive through June 30, and it also offers a variety of after-school and weekend programs. For complete info, see www.oiballet.org.