As a 13-year-old, Yen-Li Chen swept floors in a ballet studio in Taiwan in exchange for lessons because her parents could not afford them.
The bright lights and big stages seemed light years away. For Chen, however, inspiration was only a few tiptoe steps away, in a dance where she was limited only by her imagination.
“In a ballet, you don’t have to be yourself,” she said. “You can be a star, a princess, anything you want.”
As Chen gave her all to ballet, it gave back so much more — a journey to America, where she headlined performances, fell in love and got married, made many friends and settled in the Valley, where she starred with Ballet Arizona. During the last 10 years, she has been giving to the next generation of performers at the ballet school in Chandler that bears her name.
The Yen-Li Chen Ballet School is celebrating its 10th anniversary this weekend with two performances of “Coppelia” at Phoenix’s Herberger Theatre. The lead male dancer is a professional; the rest are current and former students at the school — perhaps their only chance to perform on a big ballet stage.
“For most of them, for the young girls, it will be a dream come true,” said Chen, whose school has been housed at an two-studio facility at 635 S. Alma School Road. “Girls want to perform professionally, and they will have the chance to feel that way.”
Much of the ballet focus from casual observers is on its grace and beauty, but neither is possible without intense focus on strength and discipline. Chen drills both into her students; as they dance and stretch in the studio, she paces around like a football coach, always observing and quickly correcting.
“She so loving and caring to us,” said Bailey Williams, a 19-year-old student at Arizona State University. “But she works us hard. You have to work hard to get where you want to do as a dancer. …
“Ballet is all about making things look effortless and graceful. You have to put a lot of hard work and dedication into it to make it look easy to do.”
After performing in “Swan Lake” for her school in Taiwan, Chen was noticed by a representative with the renowned Shanghai Ballet Company and was referred to a Eugene, Ore.-based production for an audition. She performed around the U.S. before joining Ballet Arizona.
Her husband, Qisheng Zhang, a former Ballet Arizona principal dancer, was a source of patience and encouragement for Chen when her school’s first day drew only seven students.
“I was like, ‘What did I get into?’ ” Chen said. “He calmed me down.
“What this has become is a dream come true.”
Today, the school has 450 students.
“Ballet has given her a lot in her life. She does this to give back to the kids,” said Stephanie Boucher, who has a daughter in the school and heads a four-person, all-volunteer costume staff.
“She’s not making a million dollars here. She’ll stays up late and comes in during the day to help us hand-sew. She does everything she can. It’s amazing how hard we work, and we don’t get paid. I think it’s because (Chen) inspires us so much. She’s a good person.”
Boucher said she pulled 18-hour days in preparation for the performance at the Herberger, the biggest venue for a school recital. It typically does its once-yearly exhibition at a high school auditorium.
Caitlin Nelson, 18, will be the lead female in Saturday’s performance. Williams has the role Sunday.
“Being able to learn from her has been a big honor,” said Nelson, a senior at Desert Vista High School in Phoenix. “She has helped me as a person and as a dancer grow stronger. I don’t think I would be where I am today, as a person and as a dancer, if I hadn’t come her. Her pushing me makes me better.”
That it might be the biggest glimpse of glory in the highly competitive arena of ballet is not most important. After all, Chen said, a critical part of her teaching is designed to translate into success on a much bigger stage.
“The big thing ballet has taught me is to plan ahead,” Chen said. “When you perform, you plan the steps. It’s the same thing in life. Sometimes, you get the part. Other times, there is more work to be done. But the focus each day should be on your quality. That needs to go into everything. Prepare, and know you can do it.
“That’s how you can shine on the stage, and shine in your life.”
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