Tan Yuanyuan is considered one of the world’s greatest ballerinas. Currently a principal dancer at the San Francisco Ballet, she is the first Chinese dancer to reach that rank at a major ballet company.
Her skill and grace have earned her accolades across the world. Hong Kong’s Phoenix TV listed her among the world’s most influential Chinese people. Time magazine called her a “hero of Asia.” And Chelsea Clinton featured her in the book She Persisted Around the World: 13 Women Who Changed History, alongside Malala Youzafzai and Marie Curie.
And in a field where most dancers retire in their 30s, Tan is still at the top of her game, entering her 24th season with the San Francisco Ballet at age 42.
She has made her mark with a range of leading roles, from the titular character in Giselle to the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker. This season, she’ll be the Little Mermaid in John Neumeier’s adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen story—her third time performing the role.
Tan grew up in Shanghai and began her studies at the Shanghai Ballet School. Later, she was selected to continue her training in Stuttgart, Germany.
In 1995, the San Francisco Ballet’s artistic director, Helgi Tomasson, invited her to become a soloist in San Francisco. Just two years later, she became the troupe’s first Asian principal dancer.
Tan is now one of two Chinese principal dancers at the San Francisco Ballet. Wei Wang, who grew up in Liaoning province in northeastern China, performs as the Sea Witch alongside Tan in the latest production of The Little Mermaid.
Ballet as a whole has long struggled with diversity, but the San Francisco Ballet prides itself on its “history of making history,” which suits Tan’s varying interests.
The prima ballerina continues to distinguish herself on the world stage, touring in different countries and serving as the guest principal dancer at the Hong Kong Ballet. She’s been honored by U.S. and Chinese leaders alike.
But perhaps no honor is greater than being a role model for women across the world. Last year, Barbie introduced a doll inspired by her.
“I’m honored to be a role model,” Tan told the South China Morning Post at the time, “to help younger girls believe in themselves and trust that they can be anything.”