Phil Chan delivers the 2024 Commencement speech

May 14, 2024

Final Bow for Yellowface co-founder and 2024 commencement speaker Phil Chan | Photo by Mike Baker

Full transcript below.

Thank you for that introduction, and thank you to the USC Kaufman administration for the privilege of addressing you today. I know that due to larger events way out of our collective control that your graduation this year was not like other years, and so I’m honored to be able to keep my commitment to be celebration with you.

I’m honestly a little shocked that I’m here, as I gave up being able to make a remarkable contribution to the world of dance when I was about sixteen. At the time, I had a very honest look at myself, realized I would never be a star of the New York City Ballet, and decided to go to college instead. What I found out, however, was that once dance gets into your bloodstream, it becomes a part of your DNA. After college, I moved to New York City and became a dancer anyway, happy just because I love to dance, and was completely satisfied in my obscurity.

That changed when I left Peter Martin’s office at the New York City Ballet in November 2017. We met because he wanted my feedback on the Chinese dance in George Balanchine’s Nutcracker, both because I knew the ballet and choreography, but also because I had lived experience being Chinese in the minority in America. After that conversation, Peter removed the yellowface from the dance but without cancelling it.

It was in that moment that I realized I had a choice: we could either collectively give NYCB a pat on the back for finally joining the 21st century before going back to our busy lives — or — I could use this as an opportunity to start a much larger dialogue for change in our field. With a simple pledge — I love ballet, and so we won’t do yellowface on our stages anymore —  the formation of Final Bow for Yellowface, now 7 years later, and the formation of the Gold Standard Arts Foundation, which supports Asian creatives in dance, we have gotten almost every major American ballet company and many European companies on board with improving representation for Asians both on-stage and off.

I attribute our success to the principle of Inclusive advocacy. Meaning: instead of saying, “hey you need to change!” say: “hey WE need to change.” Hopefully this approach of inclusive advocacy — putting yourself inside the problem in a place of shared love with the person who’s mind you are trying to change — is one that you can practice in other areas you’d like to see change, whether you are passionate about climate change, global conflicts, or any other areas that need addressing.

As someone on the front lines of a culture shift in our field, I’ll be the first to admit that change is hard. As new graduates, you’re on the cusp of incredible and exciting change. If you are having any doubts as you take your first steps into the professional world, just remember that lessons you learned in the dance studio will serve you well in the real world, both as performers and professionals.

Dance teaches resilience. 






Self Discipline. 

Self Care.

The same drive it took you to master multiple jazz pirouettes is what will propel you to succeed in life. The same adaptability and discipline to wake up every morning with a slightly different body and still deliver consistency is how to move up in any field. The same attack needed to step into an arabesque, or to make sure that break hits just right, is the same confidence you need when you walk into an audition or job interview.

My favorite creative prompt is “What Else Could It Be?” A question that in itself implies endless possibility and potential. It’s a question I ask in my creative practice, transforming a Nutcracker Chinese caricature into a spritely Green Tea cricket character, or Hindu fakirs rolling around on the floor into goofy loveable Hollywood cowboys. It is also a question I have applied to myself in order to see my own potential. What else could I be? A choreographer? A scholar? An opera director? Don’t be afraid to run towards the thing your gut is telling you you have to do. Or you have to try. Other people might not understand it, but they will once you show them an unfiltered view of what is in your heart. Have the courage to let yourself be the person you have to be.

Find something you’re passionate about outside of the studio. Stay open, stay curious.


Get yourself a side hustle. A secondary creative outlet. While in my heart I will always be a dancer, my knees and lower back remind me that learning the ukulele is a lot less impact.

Learning from your mistakes in the studio gives you the performance you want on stage right? Learn from your mistakes in life too.

Also I’d be remiss in being a good Chinese uncle if we didn’t talk about money. Invest in your retirement NOW. Open an IRA or 401(k) now. Put some of your graduation money in there. Squirreling away a little bit now will make an exponential difference down the road. 

Don’t sickle your feet. It’s bad for your alignment and burns my eyes. And you’ll hate yourself in photos in 20 years, trust me.

Treat yourself like royalty. There’s no guarantee in life that says you’ll be treated the way you deserve, so do it for yourself. Love yourself, respect yourself, love your body. 

Be kind — the community is small and everyone eventually comes back around to each other. Who knows? One of you might be my future boss! 

Help other people. People want to help people who help people. No one becomes a success on their own, there are always many more people behind the scenes. Be one of those people for someone else, and you’ll be surprised by how many people show up for you in return. With that — be gracious, embrace a spirit of gratitude. 

Where does your deep love of dance come from? Be honest with yourself about what the answer is here, it will be your foundation when things get hard. You’re going to need to be able to reconnect to this place. Where does my deep love of dance come from?

I like to think of my work with Final Bow and my antiracist practice like doing tendus. (Sort of rubbing your feet on the floor to warm them up and strengthen them, for parents who are still new to this!) When you first start, you’re probably a little clumsy, but then you get stronger and a tendu then becomes a dégagé, then a jeté — then you’re dancing in front of hundreds of people. You have to do them every day. But at no point do you have a perfect tendu and then you don’t have to do them anymore. It’s a direction, not a destination. It’s a small thing where big things start.

What’s one small thing you can do to make the world better for one person? For your community? For your field? That’s all Final Bow for Yellowface is for me — one small thing that could make one little thing a little better. That’s the place where big things start.

And finally: Be open to change. Stay open. Change brings opportunity. Meeting the changes of life with the resilience of being a dancer is what will make you remarkable. Be ready to embrace it. We all can’t wait to see what you’ll do next.

Now, please join me once again in congratulating the USC Kaufman class of 2024!