BEIJING – It's 9 p.m. on a sticky summer night, and a parking lot outside Worker's Stadium is filled with some 100 people dipping, swinging and swooning to the Austrian folk classic "Edelweiss."
The music crackles out of an old speaker propped on the back of a bicycle. Men nearby groove away in their flip-flops, while two elderly women dance together.
Beijing's parks and public spaces have for years now been filled with people practicing the slow, studied moves of Tai Chi at dawn and after dusk. But over the last several years, a new, more Western exercise craze has been sweeping the city — ballroom dancing.
"It's good for your body. It's healthy," said Chen, a young woman wearing a white chiffon skirt and high, silver dancing heels.
In one corner, a crowd of about 40 people gathers around a couple demonstrating the steps. Some observers grab the nearest partner and hit the floor, though their steps look more like the funky chicken than ballroom. Others stand nervously to the side and watch.
Most dancers say they use a combination of lessons, which cost 50 yuan (about $6), and observation to pick up the steps to the rumba, samba, tango and more.
These gatherings, which occur regularly all over the city, are also a tight social scene. One couple, though each married to other people, say they dance together six days a week. And Chen, who arrived alone, suffers no shortage of partners.
"Everyone knows each other here," she said through a translator. "They are all regulars."
Coming Full Circle
Ballroom dancing isn't necessarily new to China. "It was popular during the 20s and 30s and 40s," said Steven M. Goldstein, a professor of government and expert on China at Smith College. "There was a swing, happening place in Shanghai…called the Peace Hotel. It was the old foreign hotel [where people danced.]"
But most Western-influenced arts and activities were driven out of China during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 70s. It's only been in the last five or six years that ballroom has gained widespread popularity and acceptance in mainstream Chinese society.
"This is an interesting phenomenon," said H. Pierson French, a professor of history and expert in Chinese culture at Monroe Community College in Rochester, N.Y. "I think it's an effort to internationalize the Chinese [people] to things everyone is doing everywhere else."
China recently won its bid to host the 2008 Olympics Games in Beijing, a huge coup for the country. In an effort to make the city more tourist-friendly, the government has pushed English curriculum in schools, posted English-language signs and even tried to dissuade citizens from spitting in public — a common occurrence on the streets of the city.
One, Two, Three….
But ballroom is for more than just burning calories. Beijing's Ballroom Dancing Academy, founded in 1994, provides the kind of esoteric arts education that wouldn't have been available 30 years ago.
The school, located about 45 minutes from downtown Beijing, sends select students to competitions all over the world. And more than 80 students performed at the official Chinese millennium celebration in 2000 in an auditorium just off Tiananmen Square.
The headmaster, Zhu Liangjin, a former dancer herself, credits China's improving economics, the changing social climate as well as the Chinese people's love of Western arts for the popularity of the dance. "We like all kinds of beautiful art from the West," she said through a translator.
On an unusually humid afternoon, 30 mid-program students at the school stared rapt at their teachers, Liang Siyuam and Zhang Zhuoni, who demonstrated the rumba, then the cha-cha. "It's in the eyes," said Liang Siyuam, trying to convey the passion in the dance.
When the students copy the steps, broad smiles spread across their faces. Some mouth the English words "welcome to Miami" in the half English, half Spanish song that blasts from a boom-box.
The headmaster says the Chinese government supports the school. Indeed, without the government's approval, the school would likely not exist.
The new found enthusiasm for ballroom among students and city dwellers, is just one sign of China's evolving society. "This is an outward and visible sign of freedom," said French.
But experts in Chinese history and culture are guarded about just how far the freedom will go.
"Communists still like being a restrictive society," said French. "Anything that is condoned by the Chinese government — and dancing obviously is — is not a problem. It's a conduit to communication, to keeping people happy and not causing revolutions."