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American Dance in China

Members of a dance school in Burke perform in an international festival in Beijing.

Instead of a new computer or iPod, Lindsay Berry got something a bit different for her graduation from Lake Braddock High in June.

She got to dance on the Great Wall of China.

Berry, of Burke, joined seven other dancers from Barbara Sheppard's Academy of Dance in Burke who traveled to China in early July to perform as part of the Beijing International Youth Olympic Carnival.

"I knew it would be a once in a lifetime chance to do this," said Berry, who has taken classes at the academy since she was 4 years old.

"I wanted to see the culture, the differences between China and America. There's so much history there," she said.

The dancers were selected after Hsu Terry Wang, president of the New World Bilingual Institute saw them dance at a Chinese New Year celebration at George Mason University in February.

"It's kind of an honor to be selected as the only dance team to perform, and it was a cultural experience, the chance of a lifetime for these kids," said Sheppard, who has owned and operated dance academies in Northern Virginia for 30 years. The studio is currently located in the Burke Town Plaza shopping center in Burke.

Once she was informed they had the opportunity to go, Sheppard spread the word among roughly 40 of her students who fit the 15-18 year old age requirements. Eight students said yes, and were given discounts on their trip that brought the total cost to around $1,400, including, airfare, food and lodging. Four more area Asian dancers joined the group, and the 12 dancers began rehearsing weekly in June on the routines they would perform in China.

"It was a different type of performance, because they're used to performing with the same girls. These were girls from different classes, so they had to adjust to slightly different techniques. They had to come up with a routine to incorporate everybody's abilities," said Pat Berry, Lindsay's mother.

ON JULY 10, the group, which included another dozen parents and chaperones, left Washington Dulles Airport for San Francisco, a five-hour flight. Another 12 hours later, they were in Beijing. Jet lag, wasn't a problem, said Berry, but the long trip was a little disorienting.

"We were all a little confused on what day it was," she said. During their five-day stay in Beijing, the group visited historic sites such as the Forbidden City, Heavenly Garden and Tiananmen Square. They also danced twice a day, including marching in a parade with representatives from a number of other countries. The entire carnival, which takes place annually, is in advance of the 2008 Olympics, which will be in Beijing. The group also danced at Beijing Sea World, on a stage tethered atop a dolphin tank, and on top of the Great Wall of China, a rare feat for any dancer.

"It was a little hard dancing on it because it was tilted," said Lindsay Berry. "But it was really cool, thinking how much has gone on there, and how long it's been there."

Her mother enjoyed watching the response of the Chinese people to the American style of dance.

"It was interesting to watch the audience as much as the girls, how they would react to them," she said. "Sometimes they sat very quietly and watched but others you could see they were impressed with a certain move."

Lindsay Berry said she was surprised by how friendly the Chinese people were to her.

"They'll come up while we're walking around and ask for pictures with us," she said. "They love Americans."

Chinese food in China turned out to be much like the Americanized version popular stateside, except for a banquet the group attended their final day in Beijing. That meal was more authentic, said Lindsay Berry, and featured more fish.

"It was an amazing experience," she said.