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The perfect poise of Tan Yuan Yuan

  • Story Highlights
  • Tan Yuan Yuan is San Francisco Ballet's principal dancer
  • Career path as a ballerina was decided by the flip of a coin
  • Growing up in traditional Chinese family, her father wanted her to be a doctor
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By Denise Tam
For CNN
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(CNN) -- It was a five cent Chinese yuan coin that gave Tan Yuan Yuan the chance to dance.

Poise, character and determination led to Tan becoming San Francisco Ballet's first Chinese principal dancer.

Born into a traditional family in Shanghai, the obstacles Tan broke through to become one of today's most critically acclaimed ballerinas began at home.

Her mother who had wanted to be a ballerina saw that her daughter's physique, looks and determination fitted perfectly into a ballerina's profile and encouraged Tan to become one. "She wanted me to fulfill her dream," Tan told CNN's Talk Asia.

But her father, an engineer, had a different plan for his daughter.

"He wanted me to become a doctor or an engineer...because I was a good student in school," Tan said.

Her father saw ballet as a western art form inappropriate for a traditional Chinese girl and as a career that is unstable and short.

The two settled their differences with a flip of a coin that landed in favor of her mother's wishes and her father accepted the defeat as a matter of fate.

The relationship between ballet and Tan began at the age of five when Tan was mesmerized by the beauty of a performance of Swan Lake on TV. Apart from the tutus and the fairy queen's crown, the music and the ballerina's movements impressed her.

At age 11, Tan began her rigorous training at Shanghai Dance School and graduated four years later.

But entering Shanghai Dance School a year later than the other pupils made it difficult for Tan to catch up.

"I wasn't very good. I was always in the corner crying," said Tan.

Things took a turn for the better in her third year when Ms. Ling, a new teacher took over the class and "put her full time into our ballet trainings," Tan added.

When CNN asked about her motivation to be an incredible performer, she explained: "It is in Chinese blood to always try your best...and no matter what happens today, for example, if your back gives out or your foot is in pain or your toe is bleeding, no matter what happens you always give the audience a perfect show."

Show times

Friday, June 27

2330 (Asia/South Asia/North America)

Saturday
, June 28

1500 (All Regions)

Sunday, June 29


0030 (Europe/Asia/South Asia/North America)

0730 (All Regions)

1300 (Asia/South Asia/North America)

San Francisco Ballet artistic director, Helgi Tomasson, saw this desire and determination in Tan at an international ballet competition in France and immediately stole her from Stuttgart Ballet in Germany that had offered her a scholarship.

Joining the company in 1995, two years later she became the first Chinese principal dancer in San Francisco's 70 year history.

Along the way to becoming one of the world's best ballerinas, she has won three international dancing awards, danced at the White House for former President Bill Clinton, and was named one of TIME magazine's "Asia's Heroes" in 2004.

But despite the accolades, Tan remains down to earth, even sewing her own point shoes with elastics and ribbons to attain the perfect shape for her feet.

"The shoes are just part of my life... it usually takes me more than half an hour to sew," she said.

She has recently accepted Hong Kong Ballet's offer to be a guest principal dancer in "Tricolor", three 20th century masterpieces which include George Balanchine's Rubies, Serge Lifar's "Suite en Blanc", and Antony Tudor's "Jardin aux Lilas".

In the future, Tan hopes to be a ballet educator, choreographer or designer in both China and the United States.

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But in the meantime she has decided to follow her Buddhist teachings and just "go with the flow."

"If a good opportunity comes to me I will embrace it. I am very grateful that I have this opportunity; if it's not mine, it's not mine," she told CNN.

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