Our 3rd year student Xiongfei (Mario) Ma was born in the ancient city of Luoyang in China’s Henan province. Mario started dancing as a young child and, at the tender age of 12, he was off to pursue a five-year Chinese classical dance program at the School for the Arts in Weifang City in the Shandong province. At 17, he moved to Shanghai and entered the dance program at the prestigious Shanghai Theatre Academy, China’s top art university. The institution is known for its excellent dance and drama programs, and is the alma mater of a myriad of movie stars revered in China and internationally.

We asked Mario to tell us a little about his training in Chinese classical dance: “Chinese classical dance reflects the rich history of the country and is deeply rooted in its traditions. It is definitely very different from what I do here at the School! It requires a very strong technique, a different body alignment, and a very specific quality of movement. Every performance has a narrative, and dancers tell a story using a specific set of gestures and movements. Here in Toronto, a number of companies, such as Little Pear Garden Dance Company, create work in the Chinese tradition, blending both classical and contemporary styles.”

When asked how he ended up in Canada, Mario laughs: “I ask myself that a lot! When I graduated from the Shanghai Theatre Academy, I could choose to work with many dance companies in China. At the same time, I wanted to see the world outside China and experience different types of dance. I didn’t want to miss that opportunity, so off I went! I ended up in New York first, which I found was very similar to Shanghai in character – very fast, things happening everywhere. Toronto is calmer, more balanced in comparison. There is a sizeable Chinese diaspora in the city so it was easy for me to feel at home here.”

Mario entered the Professional Training Program here at the School almost by chance: “It’s quite interesting actually. My initial goal was to pursue a master’s degree at York University, but my English was not at the level that would allow me to do that. While browsing York’s website, I saw the information about the joint program with the School, and that’s how I learnt about the Professional Training Program; I registered for the audition, and the rest is history!”

Tyra Temple-Smith, Mario Ma © Cylla von Tiedemann

Mario’s got a few things to say about his training at the School: “It’s been good, and very challenging. Everything we do here at the School is completely unlike what I have studied my entire life. I didn’t know anything about Graham, and contemporary technique in China is very different too. Now that I am almost at the end of the program, I look back and realize how much we’ve done and how many different things I have experienced here at the School. I had never before done anything like our Source Work classes with Fiona Griffiths, or Bouffon with Massimo Agostinelli – these experiences were particularly interesting and, I would say, necessary for me. I am naturally a shy person; after these classes, I see a change in myself, and I am able to put myself out there much more.

Another challenge was that I was learning to dance all over again in a way. I think it is easier to learn the technique and the styles taught at the School if you are new to dance. In my case, I had so much previous training in a very distinctive style, and had a very specific movement set in my body. I had to try to forget what I had learned before and start anew. The differences and nuances between the techniques are very subtle, so it has been very challenging, but also rewarding when I get it right!

© Cylla von Tiedemann


I always recommend the School to my dancer friends who are looking for training. Unfortunately, Canadian dance tradition and training options are not very well known in China. I will definitely continue spreading the word about the School and about the quality of training here, and I would encourage future international students not to be disheartened by the fact that they don’t speak English well – we all speak the language of dance!”

In his third year at the School, Mario is an integral part of our graduating class, aka the ‘thrilling thirteen’: “One of the most important things for me is the support of my classmates. In my first year I spoke zero English. My classmates helped me a lot: they kept checking in with me in English-heavy classes like anatomy and dance history; they helped me with notes and made sure I followed along. I am happy to be dancing and training with my classmates and friends every day.”

When asked about his plans after graduation, Mario says that like everyone, he will be exploring all opportunities: “I’d love to stay in the city, if possible, and maybe continue to teach Chinese traditional dance here, and train with different teachers. One of my dreams is to dance with Naishi Wang (2007 graduate), who also hails from China, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed!