Pittsburgh Changemaker: Yanlai Wu

Kelly Strayhorn Theater is presenting local leaders that have been changemakers in Pittsburgh. Mentors, teachers, artists— KST acknowledges these pioneers. This is Our Story: KST Recognizes Pittsburgh Changemakers. We interviewed Yanlai Wu, founder of the Yanlai Dance Academy.


Yanlai Dance Academy. Photos Courtesy of Yanlai Dance and JuliaBelechak.Wordpress.Com

What do you do for the community now and why is it important?

As the first Chinese dance academy in the Pittsburgh area, I feel a deep obligation to provide a cultural outlet for the Chinese American community in the region and also a great desire to introduce the beauty and intricacies of Chinese culture and dance to everyone in Pittsburgh. China and the US are important leaders in the world and I believe it is important for Chinese people to understand the West and Americans to understand the East. The Yanlai Dance Academy is trying to act as a bridge between those two communities.

What is one defining moment of your life? (When you decided to do what you’re doing now).

After retiring as a professional dancer, I was living in Houston and teaching at a Chinese dance school there (one that has been featured on the television program America’s Got Talent). Two of my friends and former classmates at the prestigious Beijing Dance Academy were principal dancers for the Pittsburgh Ballet. They told me that the Pittsburgh region did not have any Chinese dance schools and that I should come here and open one. I took the leap, moved, and opened my school in 2004. Shortly after that my friends left Pittsburgh and returned to China, but I still am happy that I made the move and made Pittsburgh my home.

What advice do you have for youth that want to become a changemaker in their community?

At Yanlai Dance Academy, I emphasize the importance of hard work, a belief in oneself and perseverance to overcome adversity. I believe those are the cornerstones of a great dancer and an accomplished individual. I work with students from age three to adults. I’ve watched my students mature from giggly children to impressive, poised adults. I encourage the students to work hard to perfect the dances that I choreograph for them. I get them up on local stages at many festivals and events throughout the year to build their self esteem and confidence. And I encourage them. They all hit obstacles that they find difficult and—through patient coaching and practice—I help them conquer those problems and reach their goals.

These cornerstones of dance—hard work, belief in oneself, and perseverance makes great dancers, but these attributes also make an individual a great leader who can make positive change to his/her community. We also instill in our students an appreciation and understanding of Chinese culture. Most of my students will never be professional dancers but the skills they learn and the worldly perspective that they get at Yanlai Dance Academy will help them become thoughtful and productive citizens of the world.

BasicWhat is a song on your playlist? (A song that motivates and drives you).

I know that this answer will make me sound very boring, but I don’t even HAVE a playlist—let alone one song that drives me. I’m very busy right now mounting our May 9th performance of The Chinese Nutcracker at the Byham Theatre. Not only am I choreographing and teaching the dances to all of the students, I’m also selling ads for the programs, designing costumes and props, working with the Pittsburgh Art Institute to create video backgrounds, creating my lighting plan, overseeing marketing and ticket sales and occasionally sleeping. Ask me about my playlist again after May 9th and I promise that I will have a better answer for you.



Yanlai Dance Academy is presenting The Chinese Nutcracker on Saturday May 9th at The Byham Theatre.

The code Special2 (not case sensitive) gives $5 off each ticket (Adult becomes $25.75 and child becomes $15.75. Babies/todders in arms are admitted for free). Tickets are available here or at the Box Office. You can also check out Yanlai Dance Academy’s YouTube here.

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