Angelina Lin Hannum took a leap of faith when she joined the Beijing Dance Academy while still in middle school at ISB. Despite being considered a latecomer to ballet who lacked the formal training to succeed, she worked hard to realize her dream and perform with elite companies around the world.
Some people don't discover their passion until late in life, but Angelina Lin Hannum ('99) found hers as a three-year-old in a New Jersey liquor store. Her mother was picking out a bottle of wine for her father's birthday when Angelina found something more interesting: her reflection in the mirror. All toddlers like to experiment with movement, but there was something special about the way Angelina twisted and twirled that caught the attention of a customer in the store.
"He was a talent scout for [US talent TV show] Star Search. He told my mom I had a good sense of balance and poise, and suggested that I learn either dance, figure skating, or gymnastics," Angelina said.
Her mom heeded the stranger's advice and enrolled Angelina in a creative movement class. The young girl's improvised steps and pirouettes hinted at her flair, yet her teacher was unimpressed and suggested Angelina re-enroll when she was "more prepared to follow instructions."
Three decades later, Angelina is still sharing her passion with people of all ages as a dance educator and choreographer in Tucson, Arizona. Her career has taken her around the world as both a student and performer and brought her into contact with diverse audiences, from the royal family of Monaco to migrant children in China.
Her journey might not have been possible had she grown up in China, where having the "right look" for ballet often outweighs an individual's love for dance. Nevertheless, Angelina choreographed her own destiny by working hard and learning her craft from the best in the ballet business.
Passion en pointe
Angelina's dream of becoming a ballerina blossomed after she watched a documentary about a famous ballet school in St. Petersburg, Russia. Around the same time, she was struggling to adjust to school in Taiwan, where she had moved with her family at the age of 10. One of Angelina's teachers, herself a former ballet dancer, invited her to attend an after-school dance activity. It provided a sense of belonging and welcome escape from bullies.
Dance continued to be a valuable counterweight to Angelina's studies when she joined ISB in 1994. Toward the end of eighth grade she was introduced to one of the chief instructors at the Beijing Dance Academy, who granted her a 45-minute audition. What she lacked in foundation and technique, Angelina made up for with musicality and passion. The teacher agreed to accept Angelina for weekly one-on-one classes.
"I completely reorganized my life around it. I would do my homework in the cab on the way to school, I woke up early, I studied. I ordered my life so I never missed a ballet class," said Angelina, adding her teacher viewed her as a kind of East-West "educational experiment."
Balancing ballet and school
When the Beijing Dance Academy was founded in 1954, it was heavily influenced by the former Soviet Union. Aside from its productions rich in revolutionary nostalgia, China's communist neighbor was the cradle of many of the world's best ballerinas and choreographers.
In the mid-nineties, ballet in Beijing was a cutthroat professional-or-bust pursuit. You needed to have the perfect feet, legs, nose not just a "passion" for ballet. After two months, Angelina was attending two classes each week. Her training regimen then grew to six classes a week throughout ninth and tenth grade.
"I put a lot of pressure on myself. I don't like not being the best. It was frustrating because there were things I wasn't as good at because I hadn't put in the time. When I joined the academy, it was tough because a 16-year-old looks very different from a 14-year-old. My teachers didn't go out of their way to put pressure on me, but it was obvious that I needed to learn and learn quickly," she said.
Angelina was supported by her parents and teachers, especially Ms. Cui, "a typical brassy Chinese teacher" who reminded her to eat well, and Ms. Ros Gillund, her English teacher, who nearly 20 years on still teaches at ISB.
Ms. Gillund remembers "Angie" as a diligent student who embodied one of the school's core values: balance.
"It was important for her to do well in school, and she knew that there were no shortcuts. Even when she was in tenth grade, it was clear that she was good at prioritizing work despite her heavy commitments," she said.
Career in the spotlight
After graduating from ISB, Angelina moved to Monte Carlo where she learned from late Russian ballet master Marika Besobrasova, who taught greats including Rudolf Nureyev and Fabio Grossi.
One of the highlights of her time in the city was performing at the Salle Garnier, a hallowed venue in ballet where many iconic 20th century productions, including Anna Pavlova's master- piece The Dying Swan, made their debut.
She then studied international relations and Russian studies at Boston University, where she graduated with honors and taught ballet in the university's dance program. She also started the Ballet Variations Project, staging excerpts from classical works including Paquita and The Sleeping Beauty for the university's student population.
Angelina continued her studies at The University of Arizona, where she completed her Master of Fine Arts in 2012. In June of the same year she married her husband Cameron Hannum in Beijing, with the couple's wedding reception held at The Orchard in Shunyi.
Cameron, who graduated from ISB in 1996 and is currently completing his doctorate of pharmacy at The University of Arizona, also has a strong family connection to ISB and Beijing; his father oversaw construction of the Shunyi campus prior to its opening in 2002, while his mother has run a successful jewelry business nearby the school for more than 30 years.
When she isn't teaching dance or classes in Pilates or GYROTONIC©, an exercise method better known as "yoga for dancers," Angelina occasionally performs. Her teaching philosophy is about "inspiring individual journeys to artistic self-discovery" in the hope that her students can share in the exhilaration of her art form.
"When you watch a dance artist fully embrace their movement and be in the moment, it's absolutely breathtaking. If you can experience it, it's the biggest high anyone can get. Now, I'm in this phase of my life where I want to share it with other people," she said.