Fine Lines

East and West merge in the contemporary works of Reston’s Gin Dance Company.

Shu-Chen Cuff

Photo by Ruth Johnson

From her student days in Taiwan to her time as a Las Vegas dancer and her present-day work as a Reston-based choreographer, keeping busy has defined Shu-Chen Cuff’s career in dance.

Standing before the crowd at a recent Washington, D.C., performance by Gin Dance, Cuff’s five-year-old company, the 40-year-old choreographer explained that the stress of commuting between two dance schools, plus running her company, was the inspiration for her new work “Lost and Found.”

“I thought, ‘I never even see my husband anymore,’” Cuff recalled. “I had to learn to pace myself.” To learn, she created a dance about multitasking, which ultimately helped her realize that women who work in the arts face work/life challenges just like women who wear heels and blazers and carry briefcases. That power-lunching wardrobe is exactly what the dancers wear in “Lost and Found.” The jackets and pumps soon come off, however, and the bags get tossed around and sent zooming offstage. Unencumbered, the women loosely roll their shoulders, smile and spin. They may be the women who run the world, but what they want to do is dance.

For many Gin Dance performers, the transformation in “Lost and Found” is autobiographical. There’s Jane Rabinovitz, 25, who works as a dance coordinator at the Kennedy Center, and Allison Grant, a 24-year-old wedding and event planner. “This is my outlet for creative expression,” Rabinovitz says. Three nights each week, she and the other women meet up to rehearse—usually at BalletNova Center for Dance in Falls Church. On Tuesday nights, they first take Cuff’s 7:30 p.m. adult ballet class. “It can mean a lot of late nights and a crazy schedule,” says 25-year-old Samantha Greymont.

And now, usually two weekends each month, the group performs in Gin Dance Company shows at various festivals and venues in D.C. and Northern Virginia. Since 2012, Cuff had been renting out the Reston Community Center’s theater. But for the 2015-2016 season, arts and events director Paul Douglas Michnewicz booked the company to perform on the CenterStage Professional Artist Touring Series, a line-up that also includes internationally touring theater companies and prominent string quartets.

“They were ready,” Michnewicz says. “I love Shu-Chen. You don’t want to put someone up there until she’s ready, and she was ready. She is a fresh vision in the dance world, especially the way she fuses her Eastern and Western influences. Something about her work is so ebullient.”

That fusion is possible because growing up in Taiwan, Cuff’s training alternated between ballet, modern and traditional folk dance styles. Her goal was to attend the national conservatory and land a spot in Cloud Gate, the country’s leading dance troupe. But when she was a junior in high school, she received a surprise opportunity: a chance to immigrate to the U.S. after 10 years on a waitlist. She left her parents behind and moved to Texas, where she had relatives, and then Miami, where she was accepted into the New World School for the Arts.

“I was behind,” Cuff says, since compared to other students she had less ballet training. “I had my goal. I thought, ‘I’m going to work really, really hard. I’m going to get into a professional company.’”

She succeeded, and in 2004, Cuff moved to Las Vegas as a member of Nevada Ballet Theatre—an immigrant ballerina in a city of showgirls.  

“Las Vegas never shuts down,” says Cuff. She soon figured out that most dancers in the company worked side jobs—one, a principal dancer, managed a restaurant—so she started selling watches at a mall. In retrospect, however, she says taking that job is one of the few times her workaholic tendencies got the best of her.   

“Looking back, I regret not just focusing on dance,” she says. “I wasn’t able to really enjoy it. I was all day long on my feet. I was so, so tired.”

There is just one shift that she doesn’t regret: The day Gary Cuff came in to buy a watch. They started chatting, and he was fascinated by her double life as a dancer. He ended up asking for her number, and when his work required a move to Virginia, she followed and the couple soon started planning a wedding.

Cuff planned to take a year off from dancing professionally, but the first day she went to a studio to check out classes, she met Dana Tai-Soon Burgess, artistic director of Washington’s leading modern dance troupe. Cuff spent the next nine years with his eponymous company, performing locally and on international tours.

Still, wanderlust set in. Burgess had a distinct style that was somewhat static, and as a teacher, Cuff was developing contacts of her own. Finally, in 2011, she founded her own company and named it Gin Dance, taking “Gin” from the family name that accidentally got dropped when she immigrated. In Chinese, it means “real, truthful and sincere.”

“I wanted to start a company,” says Cuff, who also works at Metropolitan School of the Arts in Alexandria. “But I wanted to do it well. I didn’t want people to say, ‘Shu-Chen started a company and it’s OK.’ That’s what stopped me for years. I was afraid to step out of my comfort zone, but I’m glad I finally did.”

This article originally appeared in our June 2016 issue.

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