Like Superman and Clark Kent, Tiffany Dong has two identities. Like Superman, Dong the ballerina puts on a leotard and tights and performs athletic feats unimaginable to most mortals. Like Clark, the newspaper reporter, Tiffany the pharmacist puts on a lab coat and quietly goes about her business of making the world a better place for the people who live there.
Like Superman, the things that hold most of us back, don’t hold Dong back. Yet there is always kryptonite. In Dong’s case, kryptonite is called pulmonary embolism (blood clots in the lungs). And like kryptonite, pulmonary embolism can turn a flying ballerina into a weakling who can’t even run a single city block.
When Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created Superman in 1938, they created a man with multiple identities: Superman, the man of steel, and Clark Kent, an ordinary man who works as a newspaper reporter. Back in 1938, we were on the brink of World War II, modernity was at its zenith, and we thought more about the ascent of man than about the diversity of humankind. We thought about singular national identities, not the multiplicity of individual identities. The Man of Steel, and Just Clark were an unusual binary.
When Tiffany Dong and her twin sister Sabrina Dong were three, their mom, Tia Dong enrolled them in ballet classes. She said she did it because they had flat feet and ballet would help their arches. But she also admits that as a former Polynesian dancer, she’d never seen anything as beautiful as ballet and wanted to share that with her daughters.
For the next 14 years, Tiffany Dong dreamt of joining a regional ballet company. In Spring 2017 she was about to realize that 14-year dream. She auditioned for a number of ballet companies holding auditions in nearby San Francisco and was accepted by at least one. When high school graduation approached she suddenly felt like she couldn’t breathe. Everyone said it was stress. She asked her dad to run with her and he was shocked to see that she was winded and wheezing after running less than a block.
In the coming months, Dong’s time in dance rehearsal studios would be paralleled by time in hospital waiting rooms. Going across the country to join a ballet company didn’t seem so practical anymore, so she enrolled as a dance major at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) instead. After fourteen years of studying ballet, at UCI she studied Modern Dance for the first time.
One "normal" school night she woke up and couldn’t breathe. Doctors found a hole in her heart and sent her to Los Angeles for surgery. It was on this journey that she heard about Santa Monica College (SMC) and transferred to SMC for her sophomore year. When Dong arrived at SMC she was a dance major, but now as she prepares to transfer to the University of California, Berkeley (Cal) she is a dance and chemistry major.
As for how a dance major came to add a double major with chemistry, Dong explains, "I was treated with so many drugs and so many tests. I randomly took a [chemistry] class here at SMC and I didn’t know it would ignite a passion in me. I’ve really enjoyed chemistry at SMC. SMC helped me find another route to go down." Dong the ballerina still has dreams of performing on stage, but now Tiffany the pharmacist also wants to be a part of working toward a cure for pulmonary embolism.
After 14 years of ballet, Dong studied Modern Dance at UCI and now studies Contemporary Dance at SMC. Of studying Contemporary Dance at SMC Dong says, "I’d never had a space to just play and incorporate my creative thinking with my movement. There are so many options I don’t want to restrict myself to just ballet anymore." As for dance and "kryptonite," Dong says, "if my health wasn’t part of it, I’d be on the East Coast dancing every day."
"I’ve always thought negatively of Community Colleges, but I’m learning so much at SMC, and I’m grateful to be here. I have a whole different view on Community College now," Dong says. For the Synapse Dance Theater concert, Dong is performing in dances by three different choreographers: Erik Fine, Jade James, and Angela Jordan. She is excited by all three pieces: she says she loves the chance to try Jordan’s hip hop and salsa styles, she’s excited by the female empowerment themes in James’ ballet-jazz fusion, and of Fine’s piece inspired by Dante’s Inferno, Dong comments enthusiastically, "Erik is such a great choreographer!"
In the end, Superman always does save the world. And Clark’s hard-hitting news stories fight just as strongly for truth and justice. In the end, perhaps the only real challenge is for Clark and Superman to find a way to integrate the dual aspects of their persona. Back in the Modernity of the early and mid 20th century, Clark and Superman’s task was essentially impossible. Which was great for making lots of TV shows and movies, but not for finding a way to live in your own skin.
In our postmodern 21st century moment, Tiffany and Dong have a more doable task. Today it’s understood that identity is not monolithic. Today it’s understood that you can put on a leotard and tights on Saturday night, and still get up on Monday morning and help people at the pharmacy. Dong’s father, Ed Dong, who’s always been supportive of her dance career, is equally proud of the maturity he says she’s shown by looking at pharmacy as an additional career path. He says he’s fully supportive of both careers for his daughter. While Clark always struggled to win Lois Lane’s love, Tiffany the pharmacist, and Dong the ballerina have a family that seems to make that challenge easier, regardless of which costume she happens to be wearing.