Dance Dance (Cultural) Revolution

Monday, July 4, 2011

There was a time not long ago that I was terrified of dancing. The thought of priming my clumsy adolescent body to step in beat to a rhythm was enough to send shivers down my spine. An image of a flummoxed figure, gyrating wildly and making stabbing motions at the air was my impression of my own body kinesthesis. I was panic-stricken at having to dance alone, but even more so at the primeval ritual of doing so with another person. I abhorred school dances, the coming together of girl and boy from opposing gymnasium walls, and I couldn't comprehend the appeal of a nightclub—a sardine sweat-box brimming with expectations as cloying and self-evident as a man's cologne.

Unlike my former self, James has absolutely no qualms about dancing, this time with our boss Xiao Fan after one of our banquets this semester (photo courtesy of Alexandra Sterman).

In my senior year at Oberlin, having already accrued more credits than I needed to graduate, I promised myself that I would take one class that really scared me. As it turned out, that class was Modern Dance I, taught by Elisa Rosasco. By that time, I wasn't shy about letting loose my odd conglomeration of jazz hands and the “running man” at the handful of campus parties that I threw in the living room of my house that year, so long as I was aided by a lack of adequate lighting and a generous amount of alcohol. But in class, with nowhere to hide in a large well-lit dance studio, and with a trained professional dancer grading my ability and improvement, I knew it would be one of the hardest things I had ever done. And, by most accounts, it was. But by the time I graduated from that class, and pretty soon, Oberlin itself, I was filled with a confidence and love for my body that I would take with me all the way to rural China.

*

When I arrived in Taigu, I was told a lot about the dance parties that for years had been a permanent fixture at the foreign Fellow apartments—how the teachers would invite their friends over to relax in a non-academic setting. It was a cultural exchange of a non-verbal nature. It gave Chinese friends the opportunity to experience a foreign party in spite of the limitations imposed by China, including the 11:00 student curfew which resulted in the ungodly early start time of 8:30. Those who liked the atmosphere came back—to bask under a dizzying disco ball, sip on a cold Snow beer, and dance to the beat of two gigantic speakers. Because of floor damage incurred from previous dance parties at their own house, my co-Fellows Anne and Nick insisted that the tradition of hosting such events—a sought after and noble post, they assured us—would fall to James and I.

Beginning with that first weekend in September of 2009 and continuing about twice-a-month for all two years of my Fellowship, James and I have played host to dozens of dance parties, so many that we have even exacted the art of party preparation down to a science. First comes the text message invitations in the afternoon. Then the buying of alcohol after dinner. Finally, there is the setting up of the house itself. After queuing up “Layla” on the speakers in the living room (The Derek and the Dominoes original, it should be noted), we take out the trash, arrange the furniture, move all unnecessary articles into James' room (jackets, desk lamps, house slippers), stock the flimsy coffee table with beer cans and position it against my door to guard against intruders, and light up the disco ball using the Jurassic Park-sized flashlight jerry-rigged to our bookshelf.

By then the “Dance Party Warm-Up” playlist will have already cycled through three more songs—Kanye West's “Slow Jamz,” KT Tunstall's “Suddenly I See,” and The Temptations' “Get Ready.” By the time “The Seed (2.0)” by The Roots comes on, the clock reads 8:30 and the front door is propped open and ready for business. In cold weather, guests pile coats and sweaters on the couch, and in the spring, due to space constraints and incessant heat, the party spills over to include the front porch. The living room is hot as a cauldron regardless of the season and there are typically 40 to 50 people who show up at any given party. Each time the parties go off in exactly the same fashion, and in their own way, they've always proved successful—that is to say, we've never once had a dud.

Me, directing traffic in the middle of a crowd, at our Halloween dance party in guyuan last December (photo courtesy of Alexandra Sterman).

Still, the first twenty minutes are always the worst. You can spot those who are new to them because they don't yet know the American custom of arriving fashionably late, and as the first ones there, subsequently end up spending more time glued to the living room sofa than they do attempting to make conversation. It takes a few tries to truly become a regular. To be sure, there is nothing particular glamorous about the dance parties—glittery sequins are peeling off from the disco ball and the floor is practically glazed with a layer of dried beer. But the main reason that they have been so successful is that it's never hard to get friends to come. Most of the students at SAU are so bored on a given Saturday night that any break from their prescribed routine of chatting online or studying in the library is a welcome respite. Getting them to dance, however, is another issue entirely.

*

Halfway through the spring semester of my second year, my first-year English majors told me that they would be throwing a dance party on the 4th floor of guyuan, the school cafeteria. It was to be held in a room outfitted with a large dancing space as well as a stage, special sound and lighting equipment and a dedicated operator. They insisted that the party was in our honor, but they didn't take our advice when it came to the execution. Instead of simply playing music and allowing people to dance, there would be a prescribed program—hosts, contests, breaks for song numbers, closing remarks. It was the Chinese approach to throwing a party. They agreed to provide all of the snacks and set-up the space, but they wanted to know if I could act as DJ. This was not an unreasonable request—as it was, I had DJ'ed every dance party I had ever thrown in Taigu. In fact, it's a job I have really come to love.

Though it is by no means tough work, DJ'ing does require a considerable deal of awareness about your audience to know exactly what to play. With only a few people at the start, it's experimental hour—a time to audition potential songs before their prime-time debut. A waning interest for English songs on the part of the guests necessitates an injection of Chinese pop. A lot of high-energy songs in a row and the mood is set for a slower-paced cool down song. I confess that I enjoy the feeling of playing God, having the ability to gauge people's emotions with the touch of a button. And it's not just in China that I've had the chance to hone this skill. I was put in charge of music for a house party in Yogyakarta, Indonesia last February, and, in a strange twist of fate, I took over as DJ at a bar in Saigon, Vietnam on the night before my 23rd birthday.

We had had other parties in guyuan before too. Because of scheduling conflicts, our anticipated Halloween celebration ended up arriving closer to Christmas than it did October, but there were costumes and face paint all the same. There were probably close to 300 people for that event, and we were all looking forward to having another big party before leaving Taigu in June. But it was only until after the invitations went out to the usual slew of party-goers that Mary and Lisa, the students in charge of organizing the event, informed us that the time had been changed. Instead of being from 7:30 to 10 (late by campus standards), it would now be happening from 6:00 to 8. According to the students, school administrators had co-opted the space for a rehearsal singing competition to honor the Communist Party's 90th Anniversary. It hardly mattered that our students had booked the space months in advance and were just being told of the change hours before the event would go off—this was China, and plans change at the drop of a hat.

All seven foreign teachers dressed up in appropriate garb at last year's Halloween dance party (photo courtesy of Alexandra Sterman).

Me and the other teachers were livid. There was no time to warn my other students of the change, and what's worse, who wants to go to a dance party that starts when the sun is still out? Still, the party went off as planned. James agreed to host it along with a Chinese student and after I played the first song, all of the teachers jumped into the middle of the gigantic white-walled room, and with sunlight still pouring through the windows, began pulling people off of walls and chairs in an attempt to get them to dance. Usually a generous amount of prodding and hand-holding is par for the course, but this was by far the most effort we had ever had to exert. We succeeded in roping in a few students, but the vast majority continued to stand and stare at us like we were aboriginals performing a kind of rain dance.

By the time the clock struck 8:00, the dance party, much to my utter surprise, was actually quite good. The room was at about capacity, strobe lights were cascading across the floor, and students no longer seemed to be shy about dancing. However, it was just at that moment that Mary got on stage and announced that the party would be wrapping up, and almost immediately, students began packing up their things and heading back home. The girls apologized for having to end early, but there was nothing they could do—no one could so much as question the system. In a segregated corner of the room, I began calling for resistance—a chance to stand up to the administration. But my students were mired in inaction. It felt like a holdover from the Cultural Revolution—people were too afraid to do anything but bend to the will of authority. After all, what was more important to them: a permanent black mark on their record or a silly dance party?

I was noticeably embittered and began talking with one of my favorite English majors. I was telling her how frustrated I was at the situation, but she cut me off mid-sentence. “You're not angry,” she assured me in Chinese, “you're just disappointed.” But the truth was that I was angry. Anger is always so controlled in China—gun possession is strictly prohibited and there are few senseless acts of violence committed by common people—but by the same logic, it's hard for people to express their real emotions, there is too much face at stake. It was as if my favorite team had just lost Game 7 of the World Series—I was vengeful and out for blood. I started talking about how I wanted to vandalize a government office or teach bad words to the students performing “Crazy English” near the flower garden. It wasn't the early end to the party that got to me, it was my failure as a leader—that dance parties were my responsibility and I had let down my guests.

But ultimately, and just like everyone else, I did nothing. We went out to eat a late dinner of chuan, skewered meat and vegetables on sticks, over heaping glasses of draft beer. Gradually, I began to forget about my hostility, my anger slowly dissipating into the barbecued cubes of lamb and the fried green beans sitting in front of me. For the rest of my time in Taigu, dance parties were held solely at my house, where I, and not the school, held jurisdiction, and we were not subject to their indiscriminate decision-making.

*

If you play a song enough times, it starts to get imbued with a certain significance. Take, for instance, Avril Lavigne's “Girlfriend” which Anne sang with her then-students Maggie and Lynn last year as part of a grad school talent show. Or “Like a G6” which got popularized after our collective trip to Korea last winter, “The Situation” thanks to our brief obsession with the MTV phenomenon Jersey Shore, the conga line that forms around the circumference of the living room as a result of playing the Chinese song “Xi Shua Shua,” or screaming the words to “Semi-Charmed Life” with fists pointed toward the ceiling. “I Want You Back” always follows “Hot N Cold” just as “Tik Tok” always precedes “Good Girls Go Bad.” Later, after all the guests have left, we recite the words to Biz Markie's seminal “Just a Friend,” and without exception, we commemorate the official end to each dance party with the theme song to Family Matters.

In perhaps the most unflattering lighting possible, a glimpse at a typical Taigu dance party (photo courtesy of Gerald Lee).

During the party, I typically spend a third of the time dancing, a third doing damage control, and a third making sure I'm back to the speakers with enough time to change songs. At the musical helm, I do song dedications and shout-outs. I try to update the playlist, which has been passed down through at least three Shansi generations, with new songs every two or three weeks. It's fascinating to see its trajectory—a mini-Billboard Top 40 charting hit songs of the last half-decade. We have a stash of crazy hats and sunglasses that guests can try on and wear. I used to have a tradition where at 10:00 all the males did push-ups on my linoleum kitchen floor before rushing out shirtless to the faint amusement of the living room mob. This semester I began taking break-dancing classes and now sanction small cyphers as part of the dance party to practice new moves.

Though originally conceived as a way to give our friends and students a safe space to unwind and be free from the pressures of Chinese society, it has become equally as liberating for us foreign teachers. A few weeks without one and the overwhelming anxiety and stress of Taigu can sometimes be too much to bear. There are few places that make me feel more at ease, more free of inhibition, and more comfortable in my own skin than at a Taigu dance party. There is a pervasive feeling that I can let myself go completely, that nobody will care how badly I dance, and that it doesn't matter in that moment if I'm more a friend than a teacher. People now look to me the way I did my dance teacher at Oberlin—for the strength and confidence to be themselves without fear of being judged. Not only are the dance parties a fun place to unwind, they constitute some of my fondest Taigu memories.

Ten days before I would leave Taigu for good, we had our last dance party ever. After two years of memories, I was expecting it to be full of the sort of sadness and nostalgia reserved for truly special experiences reaching their untimely end, a metaphor for my entire experience in Taigu. But it was far more uplifting than I would have imagined. We had more guests than we'd ever had before, a long line of students stretching from the front door down the dirt path to where the road intersects, and the party went off as well as I could have hoped, interspersed with a generous amount of thanks for all the organizing and work that I had done to make them possible. Rather than a reminder of what we would soon be losing, it was a celebration of what we had, what we were able to create together, and the ongoing legacy that we, as foreign teachers, would leave to the Taigu community.

At 11:00, we each looked at each other, and to the handful of close Chinese friends who had stuck with us past curfew to the end, just as they had at every dance party that came before, and just as I knew, at that moment, that they would always stick it out with me, past time zones and border restrictions that force us apart in the physical world. I cued up the last song. “This one,” I started, “is for the greater love and the family.” And as the theme song to Family Matters crooned in the background, we forged a circle in the living room, laughing and shouting the words for all 81 glorious seconds. We played music until after midnight that night and I had nearly exhausted every song in the playlist. By the time it was over, the Daniel-and-James era had officially ended, but we also knew that someone would be there to pass the torch to, to pick up the reigns for next year, just as generations of Fellows before somehow knew that we would be there for them.

ksine  – (July 5, 2011 at 9:46 AM)  

Aww, this makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside! What great memories. I'll be in northeast PA this summer, Margaret says you'll be in NY. If we meet up sometime, you'll have to teach me how to let loose and just dance!

Margaret  – (July 7, 2011 at 2:18 AM)  

Pengyou, participating in a Taigu dance party has brought my life once step closer to completion.

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