Ballet, Beijing style: dancing to Mao

I shuddered to imagine University students pirouetting to cowboy tunes.

My ears perked to the ceilings when I first heard it. I am not deaf, just stunned. The dusty tape player was blaring an iconic Cultural Revolution tune. Then the whole lot of dance students began swaying their arms and hips.

It was my first day of dance class at Beijing University. Having just plowed through flooded streets, I stumbled into the classroom like a wet animal. The scene before my eyes made my body go numb. There were at least 50 students crammed into a 25-square-foot dance studio. Basic training meant 10 students resting their legs on each bar, squeezed together like dumplings.

After five desperate minutes of suffering from heart tremors, I picked my way to one slight opening on the bar and began to play footsie with my neighboring dancers as we practiced the “ronde de jambe.” When we got to the small kicks, rows of legs shot up and down like pistons. I was certain the bar was going to collapse, as the movement in the room was the equivalent of a small earthquake.

The only thing that saved me from a heart attack was the floor exercise, which, thanks to the male dancers in the class, was quite enjoyable to watch.

One stumpy fellow did his ballet walks much like a farmer would plow through his rice paddies. Another lanky fellow walked like a crippled peacock. He would thrust forth his chest and gracefully stick out his posterior, displaying its insufficiency with pride. The six dance teachers all screamed at once, “Lift your leg! Tuck in your stomach! Lose some weight!” Because I have always been pathetic at multitasking, it was impossible to decide which direction of hooting I should listen to, so I stumbled forth blindly.

But after all, this was China’s most prestigious university. Live accompaniment was a must. Our live accompaniment was a mousy Chinese girl with glasses. I’m not sure if she was tone deaf or if the piano was a priceless antique. The music, if you could call it that, did permanent damage to my ears. I could hardly pick out a harmonic melody. But of course, being Chinese meant that even without a melody, we could still go our merry way. After all, haven’t the Chinese suffered though much worse than tuneless piano music?

Then came the most memorable part of the class: Dancing to songs praising the dead Chairman Mao Zedong. It was a traditional Tibetan dance, performed with long sleeves and leather boots.

Somehow, I found it a little improbable that Tibetans waved their sleeves and bowed their heads to Chairman Mao after his revolutionary troops set fire to their temples. But a little propagandist dancing doesn’t hurt, does it? The 50 Chinese university students didn’t seem to think so.

At that moment, a horrible image struck my mind. I shuddered to imagine a room full of University students pirouetting to cowboy tunes, hollering about President George W. Bush as the rising red sun of the Texan ranches. I kicked myself. Thank goodness we have hip-hop dance classes.

The ruckus finally drew to a closing act at sunset. Colorful umbrellas lined the halls. It was still pouring rain outside. I wiped off my bike seat and started to pedal, creating my own wake through the flooded streets.

Diana Fu welcomes comments at [email protected]