Posts from the Fall: Shall we Dance?

Originally written: 12/24/12

This past week was full of dancing! On Thursday, I saw the Chinese ballet 红色娘子军 hongse niangzi jun “The Red Detachment of Women.” This ballet has an interesting political history and was one of the ballets featured in the movie “Mao’s Last Dancer.” I haven’t seen a ballet in a loooonnngg time, so I was very excited to see this performance.

“The Red Detachment of Women.”

On Friday, I had a very cool experience, but first I need to tell you some background information: about three weeks ago, my classmate invited me to join her in going to dinner with two young Tibetan women whom she met near the neighboring university. Tibet is the region in Western China that borders the Himalayan Mountains and India. The people who live there are Tibetans, a minority ethnic group in China. These two young women had come from Tibet to Beijing in order to study English at a university here. We had dinner at an authentic Tibetan restaurant, which was little more than an apartment that was equipped with a small kitchen, a couple of tables, and a few chairs. As we spoke over dinner, I began to learn these women’s stories and why they wanted to learn English. “Everyone in the world, I think, will be speaking English, so it will be very useful to learn,” said one of the women, “besides, I love English!!”

The passion and dedication these women had for learning and studying English is astounding and inspiring. On top of that, they have totally adorable personalities! One of them is a huge Beyonce fan; the other one is very outgoing and quick to make friends. They invited me to go with them to a Friday night dance at the neighboring university, so I agreed to go. It was not what I expected.

Usually when people talk about going out dancing on a Friday evening, I tend to think of loud hip-hop/techno music and strobe lights. This Friday, however, there were no strobe lights and no pop music. Instead, we gathered in an outdoor court yard where traditional Tibetan music was being blasted from a laptop connected to an amplifier. There, everyone danced in a circle around the computer in traditional Tibetan fashion. My Tibetan friends guided me through the steps: 4 steps forward, tap the right foot, tap the left foot, spin in a circle, 4 steps backwards, step and turn, REPEAT. Each dance was a different combination of these basic steps with maybe a hop or a stomp thrown in. There were nearly 100 people there dancing! Most of them were Tibetan and knew the dances and the songs fairly well. Needless to say, I was the only foreigner there. Going to this dance is definitely one of my favorite experiences so far, it is such a unique experience that could not have been replicated anywhere else. I plan to go back next Friday and the Friday after that so that I can practice and become the best Tibetan Dancer that Ballston Spa, NY has ever seen.

My final dance story is about Saturday morning. My other classmate recently became friends with the person who teaches a ballroom dance class at the gym on Saturday mornings. I went along with her last Saturday to see what it was like. The first half of the class was spent learning the steps to a basic waltz without a partner. After about an hour of practice on our own, the teacher announced that we would next move onto dancing with a partner. No sooner did he finish saying this than did one of the boys in the class ask to be my partner. I was very surprised. Back in the US, I am NEVER the first girl picked for a dance… this is probably because I rarely ever go to dances…but whatever, that’s not the point! I was surprised to have been picked first to dance out of all the girls there who had been attending this class throughout the semester and who clearly knew what they were doing better than I did. The classmate who I came to dance with (who also acquired a dance partner rather quickly) told me her theory: we look very different from everyone in the room, we are clearly foreign. That means that people are curious about us; what language do we speak, what country do we come from, and why did we come to China?

I believe this theory to be true, or at least it was supported by the conversation I had with my dance partner as we practiced our waltz. He asked me where I was from, where I studied Chinese, how long I would be here, what did I think of China, etc. It appears to me that many Chinese people, even those in Beijing, are still not used to seeing foreigners. I’m sure as China continues to grow, the number of travelers and students who go there will steadily increase and locals will eventually get used to seeing people from all over the world in their city. Until then, I think I will enjoy the fact that if I ever choose to take more ballroom dance classes in China, I won’t have to worry about not having a dance partner.