The Different Worlds of Dance: interview with Harry Shum Jr.

Asia Pacific Arts   |   Written by Andrea Apuy

Harry Shum Jr. is having an amazing year. This season, he’s no longer just “The Other Asian” on Glee (he’s a recently-announced series regular!), and Mike Chang has developed into a full-throated character, complete with a steamy relationship with the adorable goth-girl songstress girlfriend Tina Cohen-Chang, played by the talented Jenna Noelle Ushkowitz. Shum Jr. is also one of the stars and choreographers of Jon M. Chu’s Legion of Extraordinary Dancers, which premiered its second season on Hulu this Halloween.

Harry talks to APA about his inspiration as a choreographer and how his Chinese-Costa Rican heritage has influenced his perspective as an artist.

APA: How did your career begin?
Harry Shum Jr.: I started out as a dancer when I moved to L.A. I had studied acting, but dancing was something I fell into when I auditioned for the dance team in my high school. I didn’t really take formal classes; it was really learning from a guy, seeing that what he was doing was really cool, and wanting to do it. I’ve always kind of been like that as a child: I saw something that I liked, and I wanted to learn it. And then somehow it became a passion.

When I moved down to LA to pursue acting, my agents said “Hey, why don’t you try out for this dance commercial? Or this dance tour?” And I was in dance class in LA, and some choreographers offered me a chance to go on tour, and I said “Yeah! Get paid to go fly around and dance? Hell yeah!” So, for the first half of my career — five, six years — I was a dancer, doing all these awesome jobs, and having so much fun. Then I went back to my roots and started to audition for more traditional acting gigs. I was lucky enough to do some cool roles, and now I’m here on Glee.

APA: When you were a dancer, did you work with troupes or were you part of a professional dance team?
HSJ: In San Francisco, I was in the group Culture Shock for a couple of months, and I learned a lot because it was such vigorous training with midnight dance offs and dance classes. I had a great time. Then I had to move to LA, and there I trained at Millenium and The Edge, and you meet a lot of people, but I had the most fun watching videos and being inspired. Because for me, dancing on stage is a whole different experience, and dancing for film is a whole different experience, because you get to be more creative in what you do, and hopefully it reads differently on camera. You think about how this angle is going to look differently on camera if you do this. It was really fun to see the different worlds of dance.

APA: Who are some of your dancing and choreography influences?
HSJ: It’s so funny. Some of my friends who I grew up with in high school say that “You never REALLY say who the dancers are who have influenced you.” [laughs]

I didn’t get inspired by people like Gene Kelly until much later, because I wasn’t exposed to him when I was a kid, but when I started watching them, I loved what they did. That’s what’s so great about video: you can go back and watch the classics. But for me, it was people like Ginuwine and Dru Hill and Usher — I started dancing during the times that they were big, so I would see all these music videos with Janet Jackson and even the Backstreet Boys and N’Sync, and you think “I think I can do that. I think I can pull it off.” And then you try. So maybe they weren’t necessarily “inspirations,” but they were vehicles for making me feel that maybe I could pull off what they were doing. And then you look at the greats like Michael Jackson and Gene Kelly, and those guys just raise the bar, and they’re pretty incredible.

APA: So I read that you’re Chinese-Costa Rican…
HSJ: Yeah, I moved out [to the United States] when I was five. Spanish was my first language, and I need to sharpen it up. It’s not as good as it used to be because when I moved to San Francisco I had to learn Chinese and English in that household, and it was crazy hearing Spanish, Chinese, and English but trying to learn English. It was a little difficult. But when you’re younger, you grab onto the [dominant] language pretty quickly, and keeping my Spanish has been a little more difficult. My mom especially likes to sit and listen to people [speaking Spanish], and then she fires right in. It’s hilarious and amazing. It’s priceless when you see peoples’ reactions.

APA: Were you living in a predominantly Chinese area in San Francisco? Near the Sunset District?
HSJ: I lived about four or five blocks near Chinatown. I remember walking up that steep hill with my mom with a big bag of groceries every single day. I lived there for a little bit, and then I made the move to San Luis Obispo which is the Central Coast, Pismo Beach area, and that was a whole new world because I was pretty much the only Asian kid in that town. I spent the rest of my elementary, junior high and high school years there.

APA: Do you see any similarities between the Latin and Chinese cultures?
HSJ: Oh definitely! The Latin culture and the Chinese cultures share a lot of similarities in the way they handle flavors: for example, in food. My family is especially appreciative of flavors, and they are able to understand the similarities between Latin and Chinese flavors. Actually, many of the spices are interchangeable, so it’s great to see my family swap back and forth or fuse them together.

The two cultures also have a similar way of handling language. Maybe it’s rhythm or some kind of flavor there. My parents picked up Spanish just like that [snaps his fingers], but when it comes to English, they tell me that it is so hard to get the accent, to get the rhythm. But with Spanish, my parents are able to speak fluently with no accent, and their expression in Spanish is very natural.

APA: Having grown up with such multi-cultural experiences — Latin American, Chinese and American cultures — how do you think it has influenced you as an artist?
HSJ: It makes me very open to things. Before I came to the United States, I had no idea that there were differences in skin color and race. I just saw everyone as people. But as I got older, I would hear that I was supposed to be this particular way or follow this stereotype, and things got a little cloudy and confusing. But I think because of the way I started out, my foundation is so multi-cultural, and it reminds me to stay open — that you don’t have to fit in or be a type.

APA: Finally, a fun closing question: recently on Glee, we’ve been seeing your character Mike Chang getting all hot and heavy with Tina-Cohen Chang. The two of you fell in love at Asian camp. Has Harry Shum Jr. ever been to an Asian camp?
HSJ: I didn’t know actual Asian camps existed before the show, but [Jenna and I] Googled it because we had to see if this was even real, and there are actual Asian camps out there. A lot of them are Christian Asian camps or Asian camps that are there to bring the community together.

As for me, I went to Chinese school, but back then I thought girls always had cooties, and I remember a girl who had a crush on me came up to me and kissed me on the cheek, and I [miming sheer terror] freaked out. So it was a different experience. I was not in shorts and half my tank top open dancing around [laughs].


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