The Grief Gallery




Red Ribbon Dance

To celebrate Lunar New Year, The Grief Gallery presents Red Ribbon Dance

When I was planning my mother’s memorial 10 years ago, I really wanted a red ribbon dance performance. A classic Chinese dance form, the red ribbon dance has layers of meaning for me and my mom. The performance at the formal memorial didn’t happen, but the dancing continues. I invite you to explore our stories — and to dance with us.

– Charlene Lam, curator of The Grief Gallery

The Chinese Dance Group

vintage photo of dancers performing Chinese peacock dance

One of my mother’s fondest memories was of the Chinese dance group she co-founded in the 1970s.

My mother moved to NYC from Hong Kong with her family as a teenager in the 1960s. In her mid-20s, she moved out, rebelled a bit and with her group of friends, started actively exploring what it meant to be Chinese and Chinese-American. (They were inspired in part by the emergence of Black culture and identity in the 1970s, my mom told me.)

One of the ways they did this identity exploration was through dance, forming a Chinese dance troupe now known as the New York Chinese Cultural Center (NYCCC). It’s still in their mission statement: “NYCCC is dedicated to deepening the understanding and appreciation of Chinese culture in the global and local communities.”

vintage photo of three dancers performing Chinese red ribbon dance

Now, almost 50 years after the dance group was founded, I study the photos I found in my mom’s house. I admire the bright costumes and colors: The lengths of bright red silk for the red ribbon dance. The beautiful skirts for the peacock dance.

I look for my mother … is that her?

I recognize her old friend Helen, who’s still my contact at Citibank. I recognize her old friend Charlene, my namesake.

But I don’t know if I can spot my mother. She was relatively tall – 5ft 5in – so she would often be put in the back. I squint at the back of a lady’s head. At a fuzzy profile — is that her? I don’t know for sure. But she was there.

That much I know for sure.

She was there.

Young Asian woman pictured with the 1964 World's Fair Unisphere in Queens, NY

Notice in this vintage photo how each dancer keeps one hand behind their back during the red ribbon dance.

At a banquet celebrating the anniversary of the NYCCC decades later, the founding members were called up to the front and invited to twirl red ribbons. My mom was tickled by how the dancers, now in their 50s, all automatically tucked one arm behind their back. Men and women alike.

Muscle memory. It’s such an important part of being a dancer.

Her Love of Music and Dance

My mother carried forward her love of dance, music and culture throughout her life.

She enrolled me in ballet classes when I was three. (Ballet classes, not Chinese dance classes, interestingly.) She then spent the next 12 years shuttling me to dance classes. Together we went to see The Nutcracker, Broadway shows and ballroom dancing.

In the years before she died, she reconnected unabashedly with her own love of dance and music. I adore a snapshot of her line-dancing in Memphis in her 50s, when she finally made the trip to Graceland (she loved Elvis when she was a teenager). She had a passion for American Idol, the singing competition show, and apparently made solo trips to Atlantic City to attend the contestants’ concerts — so characteristic of her fiercely independent nature.

Soy Sauce bottle on gallery plinth

Less than 9 months before she died, my mom took this selfie in a photobooth at my cousin’s wedding. Her former dance troupe friends selected this photo for a tribute to her in NYCCC’s printed program that year, because “it looked like she was dancing.”

I notice now how the colors of the photo mimic the color scheme of the vintage photos of the red ribbon dance performance. Red and aqua — not the most intuitive combination, but it now has so much deep meaning for me.

Young woman in suit jacket and dress, 1960s, seated in airport, nervously holding her purse and looking at the camera

Little me, at one of the many dance recitals my mom would attend.

Muscle memory: When I dance, my hands still assume this shape. Exaggerated fingers sticking out, the pinky just so. The wrist bent at too much of an angle — “it breaks the line” my teachers always tell me as they correct me.

Young woman in suit jacket and dress, 1960s, seated in airport, nervously holding her purse and looking at the camera

After my mother died, I commissioned illustrator Mercedes Leon to draw a series capturing how I wanted to remember her. The original set of illustrations included food, flowers and many things that were “so her” but I forgot to include her love of dance and music.

Four years after the original commission, I corrected that ommission with this joyous ode to both ballet and red ribbon dance.

I Dance For Her

Three months after my mom died of a stroke, I found myself on a beach in northern Brazil. I’d gone there to cry. To scream, if need be. I hadn’t really cried since I first learned she’d died. In New York, I’d been busy making arrangements and dealing with her estate, and there was no time to cry, no room to break down.

But on that beach in Brazil, I still didn’t cry. No tears came. Instead, I danced. I danced in her memory. My limbs expressed what words and tears could not. I danced to mourn her, I danced to celebrate.

And I keep on dancing for her. On the beaches of Portugal. In her beloved NYC. Muscle memory.


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Red Ribbon Dance

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