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The Browde family in front of their home in upstate New York. (Samira Bouaou for American Essence)

A Shen Yun Life

How a New York family found a remarkable education and career track for their boys in a most unlikely place

There is perhaps no single endeavor in the human experience so filled with equal parts love and worry than raising children. Levi Browde pondered the irony of this quandary as he lay in bed one winter evening back in 2015.

He was worried about his boys, Jesse and Lucas.

The family had recently moved to an upscale neighborhood in northern New Jersey. The homes were large, the lawns immaculate. The parks and baseball fields were in abundance and filled with activity. The blue-ribbon schools were well-funded and considered among the best in the state.

Yet Levi felt a specter looming over him, over his boys, and indeed, over schools and communities across the country.

So there he was lying awake long after everyone else had fallen asleep. His mind was racing through options.

Move to a ranch in Montana? Return to the family home in New Mexico and the small, spirited school that shaped his own formative years? Sell everything and travel the globe, and let the world provide an education for his boys? As the string of options passed before his mind’s eye, each seemed less plausible than the last.

Little did Levi know that in just a few weeks, he would stumble upon the most unlikely of solutions: a set of educational and artistic institutions that would give his boys both an education and career that would transform them into young men with resilience, compassion, and a remarkably positive attitude.

Jesse, Levi, Vivian, and Lucas Browde circa 2016 in upstate New York. (Courtesy of the Browde family)

A Leap of Faith

In the spring of 2015, Levi and his elder son, Jesse, embarked on a series of road trips. Determined to find a quality educational institution for the boys during their critical high school years, they scoured the northeastern U.S. for options. Levi’s father had attended Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts, which was initially high on the list. Levi’s former high school teacher and mentor was now at Phillips Exeter Academy—certainly something to consider. They also looked across New Jersey, stopping at the Peddie School, Blair Academy, and even Don Bosco, a sports powerhouse where Jesse was eager to play baseball.

With each stop, however, Levi grew only more despondent. “I just felt no one offered a clear solution,” Levi said.

About a month after the flurry of school visits had yielded no good prospects, Levi had reconnected with an old friend, Dr. Samuel Zhou, who had recently helped to start a new private school in Middletown, New York called Northern Academy. The school was new, very small, and barely on its feet.

“’Scrappy’ would be an understatement,” Levi said matter-of-factly.

Yet the vision of its staff was intriguing—and just what he was looking for.

A former University of Pennsylvania professor, Dr. Zhou had studied the education landscape for the past decade, noting several worrying trends: declining competency in core subjects, the discarding and vilification of classics, and a meteoric rise in depression and anxiety among students. And the cause of it all? The explosion of smartphones and social media among teens, a combination that several studies had already shown was decimating the lives of young people.

“This was not just a new trend like the advent of the Atari game console, or Nintendo,” Dr. Zhou said. “The combination of smartphones and social media was tearing apart the mental health of young people fundamentally, and for many, irrevocably. From the start, these platforms were engineered to addict, to distract, to inflame, and to isolate. The sky-rocketing depression, suicidality, and other horrific trends among students is 100 percent correlated to the rise of smartphones and social media.”

This was precisely the specter that had haunted Levi, and now, finally, he found a place that recognized the scale of the problem and was determined to confront it head on.

The staff at Northern Academy wanted to create a school that halted these terrible trends and gave young people “a place to re-engage with their education, as well as wholesome, tried-and-true traditions,” said Dr. Marilyn Torley, the school’s former co-principal.

For Levi, it was a no-brainer. For his wife, Vivian, not so much.

Vivian was raised in Taiwan. By U.S. standards, the strict protocols and teaching methods found in Taiwanese schools were almost military grade. Hair and skirt lengths were regulated down to the centimeter. Transgressions were met with swift punishment. All students lined up in rows for morning announcements. Boys and girls were separate, and never mingled.

For Vivian, schools were large, well-funded institutions operating consistently for decades. So when she first laid eyes on the scrappy collection of buildings that constituted Northern Academy, it was, as Vivian put it, “a hard no.”

But this wasn’t just about the school.

For the past year, Vivian had been working full time renovating a lovely, grand home located in the prestigious East Hill area in northeastern Bergen County. “It was our dream home, and I put my heart and soul into it,” Vivian said. “I designed the foyer pillars and arches myself… I hand-picked every tile and paint color. I redesigned the west wing so it could accommodate our parents.”

“The home was her third child,” Levi said. “This is where we were going to raise our boys. This was where we’d bring our parents to live with us when the time came. This was going to be our family fortress, perhaps for generations.”

Compounding the problem was the prospect of losing a warm circle of friends Vivian had accumulated in the neighborhood over the last few years. If they decided to enroll the boys in Northern Academy, Vivian would have to leave all of them behind too.

Her resistance mounted.

(L–R) Levi, Lucas, Jesse, and Vivian Browde circa 2017 in upstate New York. (Courtesy of the Browde family)

“It was a very difficult time for Vivian,” Levi said. “I was asking her to give up so much, and for what? To send our kids to a scrappy little school with an untested staff, unproven curriculum, and uncertain future. Any mother in her right mind would scream ‘no,’ and she often did… at the top of her lungs.”

And so, Levi employed a time-tested method, proven to move mountains, and yes, even Taiwanese wives.

“Baby steps,” Levi said.

That summer, the boys enrolled in Northern Academy’s summer program. During the course of the summer, the boys built a close-knit circle of friends, and enjoyed the young school immensely.

In early August, Levi called a family meeting, a common practice with the Browde family. “I know it sounds oddly formal,” he said, “but it’s actually a great way to bring the family together and engage on a singular topic. It teaches the kids to be part of informed decision-making as well as to learn how to articulate their ideas, to hear and weigh the opinions of others, and to take ownership of decisions made, even when it wasn’t their first choice.”

Levi started, laying out a case for “trying” Northern Academy for one year. If it didn’t pan out the way they liked, in the spring they’d move back to New Jersey—no harm done. The boys concurred; it was worth a shot. Everyone looked at Vivian. It was still a tough decision, but all the reasons calling her back to her dream home could not stack up against one overarching priority: a quality education and upbringing for her boys.

”OK, let’s try it,” she said with a sigh.

Lucas and Jesse in New York City on the way to see a Shen Yun Performing Arts show at Lincoln Center, circa 2015. (Courtesy of the Browde family)

A Diamond in the Rough

According to Dr. Torley, Northern Academy’s mission includes a commitment to educate in both scholastics and moral integrity. The school’s materials and clothing all bear its core values: Integrity, Compassion, Resilience.

For Jesse, who was a freshman in high school, and Lucas, who entered the seventh grade, the school did not disappoint.

Within the first two weeks of school, staff had not only ascertained Jesse’s aptitude for math, but also altered his schedule so that he could move up a grade to match his level, while carving out space for a private class that would allow him to complete the entirety of his high school math requirements by the end of his freshman year.

This kind of personal attention and willingness to create custom paths for students to flourish became a hallmark of the school.

For Levi and Vivian, the Northern Academy difference really showed through in their own interactions with teachers. “These days, parent-teacher conferences are often orchestrated to minimize the risk of parents attacking or even suing the schools instead of what it should be: an open and honest discussion about what’s best for the kids,” Levi said. In previous schools, for example, he said teachers would always have a second “witness” attend parent-teacher conferences, and the substance of the conversations was clearly calculated to minimize discomfort rather than maximize understanding.

“It was really frustrating,” Levi said. “It seems their priorities were to placate the parents and protect the school, when the priorities should be to tell the parents, in clear and no uncertain terms, exactly what’s being taught and how the student is doing.”

Northern Academy was refreshingly different. Teachers met regularly with parents, one-on-one, laying out the curriculum clearly and not mincing words about how students were progressing, and what they needed to work on.

Jesse and Lucas eat breakfast before heading to school at Northern Academy in 2016. (Courtesy of the Browde family)

The Key Ingredient

While Northern Academy offered a complete academic curriculum, from the day it opened its doors, it also offered students the option of an arts focus: classical Chinese dance, music, or fine arts. The idea behind these offerings, explained Dr. Torley, had roots in ancient Greece and reemerged in Renaissance Italy, from which the moniker “Renaissance man” was coined.

“We believe the arts are not just extracurricular activities,” said Dr. Torley. “They imbue the students with wisdom, an expanded range of empathy, and refined personal character traits like resilience, patience, and an appreciation for beauty. For any school that is serious about helping young people develop into thoughtful, moral people, they need to have a rigorous classical arts program.”

And Northern Academy was serious, especially in the classical Chinese dance program: Many of the teachers were former principal dancers of Shen Yun Performing Arts, the world’s premier classical Chinese dance company, whose training headquarters was located just 15 minutes down the road. Consequently, dance students at Northern had the opportunity to learn from professionals who, just a few years prior, were at the pinnacle of their field.

“If the school were offering a basketball clinic,” explained Dr. Torley, “it would be the equivalent to learning directly from the likes of James Worthy and Scottie Pippen. These weren’t just pros, they were former all-stars, and they had performed alongside some of the best in the world.”

Levi and Vivian had heard about the dance program at Northern Academy, but did not look into it, thinking dance was the last thing their boys would be drawn to. It was therefore somewhat of a surprise when, at the beginning of the year, Jesse and Lucas called a family meeting.

“We want to join the dance track,” the boys proclaimed.

Levi sat in the corner intrigued by the idea. He initially said nothing.

Vivian’s reaction, was immediate and clear: “No. You’re both too old and too fat,” she said.

“Woah!” Levi sat up in protest. He stared at Vivian in bewilderment, mouth open, thinking, “What are you doing?”

Vivian was unmoved. “It’s true,” she replied matter-of-factly.

While the meeting had been called by Jesse and Lucas, they quickly sank back into the couch as their parents’ discussion escalated. Vivian opposed the idea because there was “no future” in dance for them. Professional dancers start much earlier in life, and dedicate a significant part of their lives to the craft. And even if they did, by some miracle, make it to a professional level, dancing careers are usually over by the age of 30. Then what?

Levi felt this was irrelevant. The point was not to become professional dancers, but rather, to learn a discipline—any discipline—from someone who had reached the pinnacle of the craft.

“World-class excellence is something few people achieve,” Levi said. “You can learn a great deal from those that have done so, which can then be applied to many aspects of your life. If the boys have a chance to be trained by these teachers—former principal dancers with Shen Yun—it would be invaluable to building stamina, resilience, confidence, poise. Honestly, the benefits seemed endless, and they could be applied to all aspects of their lives.”

Later reflecting on the divergence of opinion, Levi said he realized his corporate experience informed his perspective on the issue. “At that point, I’d been running a software company for almost 20 years, hiring …and firing staff,” Levi said. “Over all that time, one key thing I learned is that integrity, which usually manifested as ‘soft skills,’ was significantly more important than technical know-how. You can teach pretty much anyone to code, but having employees who are honest, willing to help others, don’t show-boat for the boss, take responsibility for things—these people are priceless. They are the ones you can build an organization around.”

“Finding an educational institution that could help the boys develop these character traits, I felt, was very important.”

Finally, Vivian relented, but not because of Levi’s insistence. As with the move from New Jersey, it came down to one overarching priority: the boys’ education and upbringing. She saw this was something they wanted and were willing to work for.

“And I had to admit they could certainly use the exercise,” she added.

Looking back years later, the Browdes, especially Vivian, identified this one decision as the single most important one they made the boys were at Northern. Embarking on classical Chinese dance literally changed the boys’ lives.

No Blood, but Certainly Sweat and Tears

The boys were pushed physically. They were challenged mentally. They had to learn to work with, and indeed trust the dancers to either side of them while in formation. Not unlike a martial arts dojo, the classical Chinese dance classes also featured disciplinary measures.

Lucas recalled one particularly difficult week during the second semester. The students were not focusing on their dance combinations, and minds were wandering. “That night, our dancer instructor made us write each dance sequence we missed 100 times,” Lucas said. “I was up until 3 a.m.”

And all this on top of a full academic schedule. “We didn’t usually all get home until 7 p.m. or 8 p.m.,” he said. “And that’s when homework started.”

Still, the boys relished their new life. Weeks turned into months, and with the passing of time, there was less and less acknowledgement that they were living a “trial” period. In fact, Levi would have largely forgotten about it were it not for the sizable property tax bill he was still paying for their Jersey home. So, it brought not a little surprise and much relief when Vivian, while sitting at the breakfast table one crisp spring morning, said out-of-the-blue, “We should sell the house.”

Levi froze. He didn’t want to make any sudden moves lest she change her mind.

“OK, makes sense,” he replied nonchalantly, while barely able to contain his excitement.

Vivian got up, placed her bowl in the sink, and quietly walked upstairs. She was not upset, but clearly it was not an easy decision. “She was basically giving up her dream home, her circle of friends… everything in life outside of her immediate family,” Levi said. “I never really pushed the issue because I knew she had to come to this decision herself. She was like Frodo and that Jersey house was the Ring. I knew I couldn’t take it from her. She had to want to let it go herself, and in the end, she did.”

Finally, Levi recalled, the decision was made, and the move was permanent. He felt they were settled, ready to see their boys through high school and beyond in their new school and new home.

Little did Levi or Vivian realize that within just a few months, Jesse, and soon after, Lucas, would make a decision that would yet again, alter the trajectory of all of their lives.

The Browdes prepare for a family dinner at home in 2023. (Samira Bouaou for American Essence)

An Audacious Attempt

It was a cold winter afternoon. Snow that fell the prior week still lined the driveway. They were late—again.

As the boys huddled in the backseat reluctantly wearing suits, they sat fidgeting with their ties. Levi’s eyes were fixed on the rear-view mirror, waiting for Vivian, trying to not get agitated. “What is taking her so long?” The boys smirked, finding some amusement that their father would expect to get an answer to a question he’d been asking thin air for as long as they could remember.

A few minutes later, and a full 30 minutes after she said she would, Vivian emerged from the house.

They were off to New York City’s Lincoln Center to see an opening night performance of Shen Yun Performing Arts. Widely regarded as the world’s premier classical Chinese dance company, Shen Yun showcases authentic Chinese culture “before communism.” The company tours the world each year, covering 200 cities across five continents. The Browde family had seen Shen Yun each year since its inception in 2006.

“Shen Yun is a rich cultural experience that showcases different historical, cultural and spiritual elements of China’s 5,000 year-old civilization,” said Levi. “Each time we see the show, honestly it feels like I’ve just emerged from a spiritual retreat—rejuvenated. Enthused. I just feel like, OK, everything’s going to be fine… better than fine.”

Levi concedes there is an additional element that makes Shen Yun unique.

“Any show that can captivate a 7-year-old and 5-year-old boy for two solid hours is definitely employing magic,” observed Levi. “That’s how old the boys were when we first took them to see the show together. I intentionally bought seats near the exit in case we needed an early out, but that never happened.”

Shen Yun, based in New York state, is the world’s premier classical Chinese dance company. (Courtesy of Shen Yun)

While the brothers had seen the show many times over the years, this year was very different, because it was the first time seeing the show after they themselves began training in classical Chinese dance.

Remembering that night, Jesse said this performance was different than in previous years. “This was the first time I understood the whole show,” said Jesse, “especially the story dances. I almost cried a couple of times that night. I remember going home that night and thinking: I wanted to be a Shen Yun dancer,” he said.

Jesse didn’t say much to his parents at that time, but a spark had been lit.

In early May, tryouts were announced for Fei Tian Academy—an elite performing arts institution that specializes in classical Chinese dance and shares a campus with Shen Yun Performing Arts. Similar to Northern Academy, Fei Tian Academy employed a more traditional approach to education, emphasizing classics, development of moral character, and a strict policy forbidding smartphones and social media on campus. The dance program at Fei Tian, however, was far more rigorous than at Northern Academy, and so admission into Fei Tian would greatly increase a young dancer’s chances of eventually being accepted to Shen Yun.

Jesse made it clear he wanted to try.

The tryouts for Fei Tian were at Shen Yun’s training center and lasted about two hours, and the results were, at least to Levi, not entirely surprising. “The instructors were very sweet and encouraging, but it was clear Jesse did not make the cut,” Levi said. “He was too stiff, and there were some questions as to whether he had the right physique for the rigors of classical Chinese dance. They offered words of encouragement and suggested Jesse keep training, but there was no indication it would lead to a place at Fei Tian Academy.”

On the drive home, Levi studied Jesse’s face. “He was a little disappointed, but not clearly deterred,” Levi said.

Digging Deep

Over the next few weeks, Jesse conferred with his dance teachers to formulate a stretching and strength-training plan that was safe but demanding. Each night, after homework, Jesse would reconfigure the living room to provide the space and support structures needed for his training routines—routines that sometimes were hard to watch, or listen to.

“While he was being safe in his technique, he was really pushing himself,” Levi said. “There were some nights when Vivian would come into my study with a pained expression on her face.”

“I can’t watch this,” she would say as she plopped down on the chair next to his desk, staring at the door.

Reflecting on these sessions, Levi later shared how these stretch routines and workout sessions really tested his parenting resolve to truly parent, instead of “coddle.”

“I believe one of the primary causes of depression and sadness is when people go through life without meaning… without ever finding a place where they belong, a mission they feel is theirs,” he said. “In many cases, this happens because they never build the resolve and drive to overcome barriers to find their ‘thing.’ And this is usually because the parents were too busy coddling them. So, as painful as it was to watch Jesse put himself through this rigorous stretching and training, deep down inside I was at peace because I could see he had found something: a purpose that touched his heart. How could I not do everything to support that?”

To help Jesse along, Levi sought out a retired Shen Yun dancer to see if he might offer additional assistance to Jesse to reach his goal. Lucas asked to participate, and pretty soon, the Browde home living room was transformed into a make-shift dance training space. Each week, the dance trainer would come to the house and work with both boys.

“One thing I loved about this arrangement is that it turned the brothers into training partners,” Levi said. “There were evenings when Vivian and I would be sitting at the kitchen table, and the boys were off in the living room, standing next to each other facing the large windows [to see their reflections] as they walked through dance routines.”

It was just a few months later that Fei Tian Academy offered Jesse another chance to try out. This time, the tryout was quick, and his acceptance almost immediate.

“I can’t say for sure,” Levi said, “but my impression is that it was Jesse’s dedication and heart that garnered his acceptance more than the strides he had made in technique or flexibility, although he had made progress in those areas too.”

The new semester at Fei Tian Academy would not start for another month, so Levi and Vivian pulled both boys out of school for a week, and took off for Los Angeles. “We wanted to celebrate Jesse’s accomplishment,” Levi said, “but we also realized Jesse would be entering a rigorous program. RnR would be rare, so we took this chance to catch a Dodgers game and enjoy some fun in the sun!”

“It was like a last hoorah before Jesse reports to a sort-of boot camp, so we made the most of it.”

Exhausted after a Northern Academy dance recital in 2017, Jesse and Lucas get some well-deserved rest. (Courtesy of the Browde family)

Times That Try Men’s Souls

Cultures around the world, and throughout history, have often adopted rights of passage for their young people. Trials that serve both as a test to determine if the person can serve a productive role in the tribe or society, but also something to help the person realize his or her potential.

“Sometimes it’s hard to imagine yourself doing something difficult…. until you actually do it,” Levi observed. “And that success, far more than any encouragement or coddling, builds confidence and poise.”

Levi felt Jesse’s first few months at an elite classical Chinese dance training academy would serve as his own right of passage. “He had only been training for about two years, and he was going into a program where many there had been training since they were very young,” Levi said. “My sense is that he had a difficult road ahead of him.”

Jesse later confirmed that his father’s suspicions were spot on.

“The first couple of weeks were tough,” said Jesse. “It was obvious that many in my training class not only knew techniques that were beyond me, but they knew… how to dance. Like, with rhythm and bearing [or “yun” in Chinese, a vital element of classical Chinese dance].”

“By comparison, I felt like Dumbo out there,” Jesse said.

As part of his plan to catch up with his class, Jesse would spend extra time in the dance room, mostly working on stretching and flexibility—essential skills of any elite classical Chinese dancer. Sometimes he’d go in before lunch or stay late, continuing some of the rigorous stretching routines that had sent his mother into his father’s study at home so they didn’t have to watch.

Sometime in the first month, Levi got a call from Jesse out of the blue. Levi was just getting out of a luncheon meeting when his cell phone rang. It was Jesse on the line… in tears. “He was stretching and just needed someone to be with him… to help him make it through the full stretch,” Levi said. “So there I was sitting in the parking lot, just listening to my son on the other end of the line sweating it out. We said a few words, but not much…I just sat there on the line with him.”

It was at this point that Levi was mentally preparing for what he thought might be a tough time period as a parent.

“I believe one of the most important balancing acts one performs as a parent is the one between comforter and drill sergeant,” Levi said. “Parents who comfort too much actually hurt their children. I remember hearing Dr. Phil describe it as a form of child abuse because you deprive them of the chance to grow and become strong. And yet, there are also parents who push too much, which can create a whole host of other problems.”

Levi felt this balance was one of the most important tests as a parent.

“It requires that you really purify your own motives. You have to make sure you’re not imposing your own stuff on your kid, whether that’s your own desire to see joy on the kid’s face or your own attachment to what the kid should do or be. You have to get rid of all that…all your own baggage, and just give the kid exactly what he needs for his life,” Levi said.

He felt that in the weeks and perhaps months ahead, he would be tested to see if he could strike the right balance with Jesse. He would perhaps need some support and encouragement, but he may also need some “tough love,” to make sure he did not give up on himself or his own goals.

But Levi was wrong. Another call for help never came.

It would be almost a year before Levi said he fully grasped what had happened: that the educational and training environment at Fei Tian Academy had given Jesse the support, training, and tools he needed to exceed everyone’s expectations, including Levi’s.

Jesse and his mother Vivian enjoy a day off during Jesse’s first year at Fei Tian Academy. (Courtesy of the Browde family)

A Training Environment Like No Other

Nestled in the rolling hills of Orange County, New York is Dragon Springs—a 400-acre campus that combines the natural beauty of the Hudson River Valley with ancient Chinese architecture, performing arts, academic learning, and spiritual practice.

Dragon Springs is a 400-acre campus nestled in the rolling hills of Orange County, New York, that contains a collection of Buddhist-style temples built in the authentic Tang Dynasty tradition, an educational complex that hosts Fei Tian Academy and Fei Tian College, and the professional training center for Shen Yun Performing Arts. (Courtesy of Dragon Springs)

The campus hosts three distinct yet symbiotic entities: a temple grounds featuring a collection of Buddhist-style temples built in the authentic Tang Dynasty tradition, an educational complex that hosts Fei Tian Academy and Fei Tian College, and the professional training center for Shen Yun Performing Arts.

The Academy and College combine a standard academic education with a rigorous performing arts program. Fei Tian students that reach professional standards are invited to join Shen Yun’s annual tour as part of the school’s practicum. Many, upon graduation, are then hired by Shen Yun as professional artists.

“It’s one of the most beautiful campuses I’ve ever seen,” Levi explained. “Every time I take someone to campus for the first time, there’s this one moment when they emerge from the long, winding road through the woods and come to the lake, and see the beautiful temple buildings rising up the slope across the lake. Without fail, everyone says the same thing: ‘wow’.”

“But as beautiful as the campus is, the real treasure of the place is the educational and company culture that pervades both the schools and the Shen Yun company,” Levi said. “I don’t know of any other organization in the world that has so successfully brought together quality education, world-class artistry, and faith into one.”

According to Dr. Tianliang Zhang, a professor at Fei Tian College, this is no accident. “The Buddhist-based spiritual practice of Falun Gong is rooted in traditional Chinese culture, which is the foundation of the environment at Fei Tian and Shen Yun, and really a key element that has propelled Shen Yun to be the world’s premier classical Chinese dance and music company.”

“In traditional Chinese culture there’s this idea that great art—art that really inspires and uplifts—can only be created by people of high integrity,” Professor Zhang said. “That is, the more virtue the artist embodies, the more beautiful and impactful his or her art will be.”

At Fei Tian and Shen Yun, this principle guides every aspect of their training and work. Students and professional artists alike strive to perfect their technique while simultaneously improving their character through the practice of Falun Gong.

“Elevation of one goes hand-in-hand with the other, and this is not just a feel-good concept,” Zhang clarified. “It is an approach that produces some of the best classical Chinese dancers in the world. It is also one of the secret ingredients that makes a Shen Yun performance like no other. Time and time again, audience members remark how the purity of the artists on stage is unlike anything they have ever witnessed, and was a core element to the hope and inspiration they experienced at the show.”

This approach—what some artists affectionately call the “Shen Yun way” —was a revelation for Jesse.

Jesse performs in the Techniques portion of the Ninth NTD International Classical Chinese Dance Competition in 2021. He received a silver award in the Junior Male Division. (Dai Bing)

“For me, it was like a huge change in my way of thinking and approach to life in general,” Jesse said. “Before coming here, I was a moderately motivated person, at best… I’d never really poured my heart and soul into anything. But here, you are surrounded by people who not only strive for artistic excellence, but believe, deep in their bones, that achievement of that excellence can only really happen when you put yourself, your ego, down. Greatness can only come when you strive to transcend yourself and put others first. That was a game-changer for me.”

And it wasn’t always easy. Levi recalled something Jesse said near the end of his first year at Fei Tian that spoke to the character-building aspect of the education.

“Jesse was at home during his weekly off-campus day, and out of the blue, he turned to me and said, “I wish you had yelled at me more [growing up].”

“For a split second, this took me by surprise,” Levi said, “but very quickly, looking at Jesse’s face, I realized what he was saying. Even in those first few years, he was seeing the importance of taking criticism constructively, and to not get down or take offense when someone tells you how and why you need to improve.”

Reflecting on that question and his progression at Fei Tian, Jesse said: “At some point, I realized how big of a problem ego can be. As you improve as a dancer, you may start to think, ‘Oh, I’m pretty good.’ But having people tell you your problems is one of the few ways you can improve really quickly, so when other people see your problems and they point them out to you—if you don’t accept that, then you are really hampering your own development, and you’re missing a good opportunity to mesh with your troupe. A good, strong, healthy relationship includes honesty, and genuinely wanting each other to improve… even if you have to get in someone’s face about it.”

“My dance troupe is my platoon—my band of brothers,” Jesse said. “They push me to do better, to be better, and together, we are better.”

Less than a year after Jesse was accepted to Fei Tian, his younger brother Lucas was also accepted and joined his brother at the prolific academy.

Like his brother, Lucas found the training environment at Fei Tian transformative. In particular, Lucas said it gave him the support and tools to push through what he describes as his own “weaknesses.”

“In general, before coming to Fei Tian, I think my body was relatively weak and I lacked toughness… especially mental toughness in the face of physical trials,” Lucas said. “In the past, I didn’t see much value in trying to change this, I would just avoid heavy physical activity.”

After coming to Fei Tian and later being invited to join Shen Yun’s tour, however, Lucas said he noticed a big change.

“Not only does this environment push me to expand my limits, but for the first time in my life, I was given a compelling reason to do so,” Lucas said. “I realized that the stronger and more resilient I become, the more expressive and captivating dancer I can be on stage… and the better I do that, the more impact I can have on the audience.”

Lucas said that understanding this connection in a very real and visceral way was the game changer for him.

“For the first time, I would approach physical challenges as an opportunity not just to become stronger and more explosive, but as a tangible way to better touch the hearts of the audience,” Lucas said. “That rationale…that revelation changed everything for me. Fundamentally, pushing myself was not just about me.”

As Lucas delved more deeply into how this revelation impacted his life, it’s clear that, although there was clarity of purpose, there was still a significant effort to push past his perceived physical limitations. Dance training is, after all, very demanding, especially at Fei Tian. Having a clear purpose certainly provided the necessary foundation, but it was one other key ingredient to the “Shen Yun way” that Lucas relied on heavily.

“Always stay positive,” Lucas proclaimed.

“We’re often pushing our own limits as well as what we can achieve as a group,” Lucas said. “That means stumbling and failure come with the territory, so it’s very important to keep a positive attitude at all times. This is so important.”

“What I find really interesting,” added Levi, “is that this educational and company culture stems from the salt-of-the-earth Chinese who founded Shen Yun and the Fei Tian schools in New York. It’s like you have the best of both worlds: a company with the freedom found in America combined with a cultural depth and work ethic endemic to heartland China. That is a powerful combination.”

Lucas Browde received the Gold Award in the Junior Male Division of the NTD International Classical Chinese Dance Competition in 2021 and 2023. (Dai Bing)

Authentically Chinese, Made in America

Many are surprised to learn that Shen Yun is an American company, and even more so, the tragic reasons as to why.

When communist forces seized power in China in 1949, they spent the next 70 years systematically destroying traditional Chinese culture, and targeting anyone who stood firm to defend it. Throughout this time, violent campaigns targeting different segments of society decimated communities throughout the country.

During the land reform and “counterrevolutionary” campaigns of the early 1950s, 3-5 million people were killed. The disastrous Great Leap Forward from 1959-1962 resulted in the deaths of 30-40 million. The Great Cultural Revolution from 1966-1976 reached such a frenzy that children would beat or even kill parents, teachers, and elders; many turned them in to authorities for torture or public humiliation; 7-8 million died amidst the madness.

In 1989, the world watched as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) took aim at students protesting in Tiananmen Square, where over a thousand were gunned down or crushed by tanks. In the years that followed, an eerie quiet settled across China as people sought ways to live meaningful lives without provoking the wrath of the regime. It was during this time that qigong practices (aka “Chinese yoga”) began to emerge, offering people a non-confrontational outlet for maintaining health and reconnecting with a semblance of Chinese culture.

In 1992, the Buddhist-based spiritual practice called Falun Gong was first introduced to the public. Over the next several years, it became widely popular across China, both for its health benefits and its spiritual teachings centered on Truthfulness, Compassion, and Forbearance. Yet, when a government survey found there were 70-100 million people practicing, in 1999, the CCP launched yet another campaign: this time targeting Falun Gong.

In the first few weeks, tens of thousands of Falun Gong practitioners were detained, as a brutal, nationwide campaign was launched to “eradicate” the practice. Since that time and continuing to this day, millions have been detained or imprisoned, with hundreds of thousands tortured. Thousands have died from torture and abuse in custody.

According to the 2019 London-based China Tribunal, a “significant number”—possibly hundreds of thousands—have been killed to forcibly remove their organs, a crime reaffirmed by new academic research and targeted by recent legislative efforts around the world.

All the while, vilifying propaganda from the CCP has dominated state-run media in China, and greatly tainted media reports on Falun Gong around the world.

Fleeing persecution, Falun Gong artists looked to America’s shores. But they didn’t just want to build a new life for themselves. They had a larger goal in mind.

“What most people don’t realize is that Falun Gong is authentically Chinese, and much more so than almost anything you can find in China today,” Professor Zhang said. “Falun Gong has roots in China’s traditional culture that stretch back for millennia. In fact, Falun Gong’s popularity in the 1990s itself constituted a spiritual renaissance of sorts… a re-emergence of the wholesome, spiritual traditions of China’s heartland. In trying to ‘eradicate’ Falun Gong, the CCP was in effect, stamping out a resurgence of China’s true culture… it was the CCP’s ‘final solution’ to eradicate traditional Chinese culture itself and fully impose Marxism on the Chinese people.

Shen Yun dancers take time out of their busy rehearsal schedule to do the Falun Gong sitting meditation. (Courtesy of Shen Yun)

“When Shen Yun’s founders landed here in New York, as Falun Gong practitioners and world-class artists, they were uniquely qualified to revive China’s traditional culture and share it with the world… and that’s precisely what they did.

“That’s why, today, Shen Yun represents a renaissance in Chinese culture, but this time, on the world’s stage, and for everyone to enjoy.”

Shen Yun now has eight companies that tour the world simultaneously, performing in more than 200 cities across five continents each season. With innovative digital stagecraft, the world’s first orchestra to feature both classical Chinese and Western instruments as permanent members, and storylines that draw from the tapestry of China’s 5,000-year history, Professor Zhang said, “the company quickly raised the bar on what a group of artists could accomplish.”

While it took some time for Levi to understand the nature of this Shen Yun renaissance, the importance of it—and the opportunity it presented for his boys—was not lost on him. “This is a remarkable group of people engaged in a grand mission… and the boys are right in the middle of it,” Levi said.

A Golden Surprise

During the fall of 2020, Levi was often at home by himself. Vivian had flown to Taiwan for a few months to work and visit family.

“One night I was out on the deck watching the sunset, and my phone started blowing up,” Levi said. “People were sending me ‘congratulations’ and saying stuff like, ‘Oh wow, gold!’ I had no idea what they were talking about.”

Then, the phone rang, and it was Vivian calling from Taiwan. She was also confused.

“I was getting the same messages, and didn’t know what was happening,” Vivian said. Levi said he’d find out and hung up. He finally got ahold of a friend on campus who told Levi the news: the Fei Tian Academy had hosted a competition and both Jesse and Lucas had won gold in the junior category.

“Honestly, at that point, I was even more confused,” Levi said. “Years ago, I was surprised when the boys first wanted to ‘try’ dance. And then, later when they were accepted into Fei Tian Academy, I was just hoping they would like it enough to stay… I never ever thought they might actually get good at it.”

The competition results were not an anomaly.

The following year, both boys participated in the New Tang Dynasty International Dance Competition. Lucas again secured a gold award in the junior division. Jesse received a silver award.

“This was one of the most emotional times for me as a father,” Levi said. “Although they had been studying dance at that point for about five, six years, because of COVID, this was the first time I saw both boys live on stage dancing solo since they had joined Fei Tian Academy, and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.”

“I knew them as stocky, slow baseball players,” recalled Levi, “and what I was seeing on stage was a complete transformation. They were elegant, expressive, captivating… like they had been doing this their whole lives. I was in tears… I just couldn’t believe what they had accomplished in just a few short years.”

The brothers’ success in such a short time period, however, is not unusual for Shen Yun’s training program.

“It normally takes 10 or more years and a grueling schedule for someone to reach a world-class standard,” said Vivian, “which is why I was initially skeptical about the boys starting when they did. But, I have to admit: Fei Tian and Shen Yun proved me wrong.”

According to Levi, the success of Shen Yun’s training program goes beyond just hard work and dedicated staff. “There’s a special sauce to the Shen Yun recipe that no one else has,” Levi said. “Shen Yun’s artistic director has infused the entire program with a foundation and know-how that had been essentially lost to history.” As an example, Levi pointed to the twin techniques of “shen dai shou” (the body leads the hands) and “kua dai tui” (the hips lead the legs). Often cited by international dance competition winners as the key ingredient to their success, Levi said these twin techniques have elevated Shen Yun performance art to a whole new level. “No one was even talking about them, let alone able to do them until Shen Yun burst on the scene,” added Levi.

“The boys were very fortunate to find an institution that could take their heartfelt aspirations and provide a way to make them reality,” Levi said. “They are living their dream.”

Lucas Browde performs “King Gou Jian’s Return” during the Ninth NTD International Classical Chinese Dance Competition in 2021. (Dai Bing)

A Growing Bond

The changes in the boys during their years at Fei Tian were also evident on the home front, “especially between the two of them,” Levi said. “It was different from when they were younger. They had different personalities so it’s not like they were inseparable,” said Levi.

“I mean, they had baseball in common and played together like brothers do, but as they got older, their differing personalities became more apparent and so there was not a tremendous amount of overlap in interests. And there were plenty of times when they looked at each other, and were both thinking, “Why is he like that—so annoying?”

“I used to worry about it, actually,” admitted Vivian. “I always had this ideal of my boys being best friends, so seeing them not quite that… I worried a little. I wanted to know that no matter what happened in their lives, they would be there for each other.”

Yet, if their boyhood years represented a growing apart, the Fei Tian years were clearly a coming back together.

“When they started spending more time together practicing and talking about dance, I initially thought it was really just a new-found common interest,” said Levi. “However, over the years, it became clear the togetherness transcended their shared dance interest; a close bond had emerged between the two of them.”

Lucas and Jesse at home in upstate New York. (Samira Bouaou for American Essence)

As the younger brother, Lucas began demonstrating a respectful deference to Jesse. “It became common for Lucas to check with Jesse on which restaurant he wanted to go to, or which movie to see,” Levi said. “And it wasn’t like a burdensome thing… it seemed just more respectful, from the heart. Honestly, I think it was a direct extension of the more traditional environment found at Fei Tian and Shen Yun.”

For Jesse, who typically was more focused on what was in front of him—including not always considering others around him while going about his day—there was a new-found inclusion. “Just little things,” noted Vivian. “In choosing a restaurant or shopping for things online, he’d call Lucas over and they’d pore over the product options and styles together, immersed in joyous banter. In the past, he wouldn’t care very much about his brother’s opinion, nor want to hear it, but now he sought out and genuinely appreciated his brother’s perspective.”

On a recent family vacation, Levi said the strength of their relationship became even more apparent. “Family vacations can sometimes try people’s patience,” said Levi, “especially as different preferences and opinions emerge among family members. But the boys were like two peas in a pod, making plans together, and exploring each region we traveled to like best friends on spring break, which I guess is pretty much what it was. They went everywhere together. Their mother and I just tried to keep up!”

According to Levi, this change is not disconnected with the culture at Fei Tian and Shen Yun.

“Being immersed in a culture that encourages you to put aside ego, and try to think of others’ interests first… that’s going to have ramifications on all your relationships, including with your brother,” Levi said.

The brothers have grown closer to each other ever since they took up dance training. (Samira Bouaou for American Essence)

One Profound Moment

The artists of Shen Yun believe that a life-changing experience is not predicated upon prolonged time and effort (as in, “medical school changed my life”) nor is it relegated strictly to the religious realm. “Even in a relatively brief moment—during the course of a two-hour show, for example—one’s life can indeed be changed, provided something truly and deeply touched the soul,” Professor Zhang said. “A person’s outlook on life, and consequently his or her approach to life, can be elevated, infused with hope, or driven by a newfound positivity, and therefore, a new direction.”

“Over the years, this is exactly what has happened to many people who experience a Shen Yun performance,” Professor Zhang said.

Upon reviewing hundreds of recorded Shen Yun audience reviews over the years, the trend Professor Zhang described is certainly evident. In fact, this is one of the unique and fascinating aspects of Shen Yun: the substance of what audience members say right after stepping out of the theater. Gushing accolades are certainly not unique to Shen Yun—many performances around the world elicit wholesale praise. What’s fascinating about Shen Yun audiences is how often their comments go much deeper, talking about the performance as “therapy for the soul” and a “life-changing experience.”

All of this is not lost on the performers. In fact, for many, it’s their North Star.

“For many Shen Yun dancers, they usually started because they wanted to be artists, they wanted to dance or play music, or maybe they were just encouraged by their parents,” Lucas said. “As you progress at Shen Yun, however, you gain a more profound appreciation for the culture behind the art. That is, the thousands of years of virtues, and the fascinating stories and art forms that exhibit those virtues for the audience in a tangible way… in a way that makes them worthy of aspiring to.”

“But there’s something else,” Jesse interjected. “As we mature as artists and people, and as we spend more time touring with Shen Yun and seeing the impact on the audience, I think we all get a sense for how impactful the show can be… the possibility that on any given night, the audience can experience something really profound.”

“For us as dancers, I think we all feel a tremendous sense of responsibility to do well,” Jesse continued. “That responsibility can sometimes feel like a burden, but it also infuses our lives with tremendous meaning and purpose. Honestly, I can’t imagine wanting to do anything else.”

Lucas described how sometimes at night, after a long day of training and rehearsals, he crawls into bed, sore and exhausted, “but with a big smile on my face,” said Lucas.

“Dancing with Shen Yun is demanding… sometimes exhausting, and honestly achieving this level of artistry with the whole group as we refine and refine and refine every detail to ensure each piece will touch the audience… it can be frustrating because we all need to be in sync, and even if just one person is off, we need to work together to fix it.”

Lucas added, “To really succeed here as an artist, you’ve got to be willing to not only do your part individually, but ensure you’re helping everyone around you do the same thing. It can be exhausting, but… it’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. I feel fulfilled, like deep down, truly happy with this opportunity and the journey I’m on with all these great people.”

Lucas performs during the Techniques portion of the NTD International Classical Chinese Dance Competition. (Dai Bing)

Lucas smiled and then added, “Like Joe DiMaggio famously said: ‘I’d like to thank the Good Lord for making me a… well, not a Yankee, but a Shen Yun dancer!”

From a father’s perspective, Levi said he thinks Jesse and Lucas have found something that is “a great deal more” than just a dance career, and that it couldn’t have come at a more critical time.

“Honestly, I think there’s an epidemic in parenting and education across the country that inhibits young people from learning to grow, succeed, and lead rewarding lives,” said Levi.

“The sky-rocketing rates of depression and a whole host of other problems that are so prevalent in schools and universities across the country are the result. People need to develop a certain level of resilience so they overcome obstacles in life, and more importantly, they need to have a reason to do so. They need to find meaning for their lives that is wholesome and connected, in some way, with time-tested, universal values. Without this level of meaning, it’s easy to become bitter or lost.”

And the antidote to this epidemic?

“It’s Fei Tian and Shen Yun, without a doubt,” Levi said. “Actually, I’ve encouraged them [Shen Yun] to open up academies across the country. They really have a special recipe for developing young people. I always thought it would be great if more young people had a chance to become part of this. It would certainly give me more hope for the future of their generation, and the future in general.”

Jesse performs “Loyalty Amidst Corruption” during the Ninth NTD International Classical Chinese Dance Competition in 2021. Jesse received a silver award in the Junior Male Division. (Dai Bing)

All the World’s Their Stage

Vivian was excited. She’d never been to Prague before, and for this trip, they had a surprise.

For the past few years, Jesse and Lucas have toured with Shen Yun as part of their practicum at Fei Tian. This year, their troupe was opening the season with shows in Germany, Poland, and France.

“Vivian had always wanted to see Prague, and that is driving distance to Berlin so we decided to see some of Europe and surprise the boys in Berlin,” Levi said.

They landed in Prague on a crisp winter day, and found their way to their hotel nestled on the banks of the Vltava River that divides the old city. They explored the Charles Bridge, took in the famed Christmas markets, and even enjoyed one of the many chamber music concerts offered every night around the city during the holidays.

Two days later, they were in Berlin, at the Theater am Potsdamer Platz. Levi had bought tickets on the balcony so they wouldn’t be spotted. “We didn’t tell the boys or anyone we were coming,” he said.

After the performance, Levi and Vivian made their way to the side of the theater. There were some picnic tables near the performers’ entrance alongside a fountain. Small restaurants lined the small plaza. As the dancers and musicians emerged from the theater, Levi and Vivian kept their heads down.

Finally, Jesse emerged, and both his parents jumped up, “Bravo!” Jesse stared at them, the “Wha…?” not fully formed out of his mouth. They hugged and talked about their travels in Prague and up through Germany. Other members of the troupe stopped to say hello and chat. Lucas, the last of the performers to emerge, walked over to see what the commotion was.

Then, just as quickly as the crowd converged, it dispersed. The bus was waiting to take the troupe back to their hotel. Levi and Vivian said their goodbyes and watched their boys board the bus and drive away.

Curtain call at a Shen Yun Performing Arts performance. (Courtesy of Shen Yun)
(Samira Bouaou for American Essence)

After Berlin, their troupe had two more performances in Germany before going to Poland, and then France. They would start in Paris, and then work their way south performing in cities along the French Riviera. Then, one stop in Spain before flying back to the U.S. for shows later in the spring throughout the northeastern U.S.

Turning to Vivian, Levi said that both boys, in their young lives, have been to more cities and countries than he has in his entire life. “And they’re just getting started,” Vivian responded with a beaming smile.

Levi watched the bus fade into the Berlin night. He looked at Vivian and said “I need a minute.” Levi walked over to the fountain and began to cry.

Reflecting on the moment later, Levi said, “I was thinking about the journey we had all been on, and more specifically reflecting on my journey as a parent.”

“Honestly, I’ve had concerns about my parenting from the very beginning. Looking back, I can see so many times when I could have and should have done better as a parent. But that night in Berlin, as I watched them board the bus, I could see clearly what they have become, the life that Shen Yun has given them, and all my doubts and worries faded away.”

Levi paused for a moment, searching for the right words: “In a way, I feel like we’ve raised these boys together with Shen Yun: my wife and I gave them a foundation, but Shen Yun gave them direction and wings to soar, and for that, we’re eternally grateful.”