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It might not be what he was most known for, but it seems Chairman Mao was quite the dancer.
In the decades before the Cultural Revolution, a campaign under the Chinese Communist Party to limit Western and capitalistic influences, many in China took up the major international dance crazes of the time: waltzes, the tango, the foxtrot, even the mambo. It's possible that ballroom dances were taught to factory workers in the early years of the Communist Revolution.
A Kansas University researcher recently won a Fulbright award to study what it means for different generation of Chinese to immerse themselves in the music and dance steps of faraway cultures.
In September, Ketty Wong, an associate professor in the KU School of Music, will travel to Bejing, where she will stay through next June. Once in Bejiing she will observe, interview and even take lessons from Chinese salsa and ballroom dancers, as well as nightclub owners and instructors.
The initial idea came to her after attending a celebration of the Chinese New Year at the Lied Center. There she met a student who said she taught salsa lessons in China. After doing some research, Wong found that the salsa teacher she talked to was one of a burgeoning trend in China.
Wong traveled to Bejing last year to do preliminary field research. Finding mainland Chinese doing western-style dances was not difficult. "This is not something you have to look for," Wong said. "You just go. Take a bus, take a taxi, and you will see people dancing in parks."
She saw retired Chinese men and women turning parks into sunlit ballrooms, dancing mainly for exercise, and younger Chinese professionals salsa dancing in night clubs.
She was particularly impressed by the young salsa dancers. Wong herself grew up salsa dancing in Ecuador, to which her father and maternal grandfather had emigrated from China. But salsa dancing in coastal Ecuador was casual. "I (salsa) dance, but I dance the social way, not the professional way," Wong said.
The Bejiingers she saw salsa dancing took it seriously, dancing with a high level of technique. They'd invested time and money into learning it. They'd also put into it an elegance of movement Wong had seen in traditional Chinese folk dances.
"The discipline to learn the dance, that's very Chinese. But they do it with joy, too," Wong said.
So, in addition to studying Mandarin to prepare for the trip, Wong has been taking lessons in Lawrence to learn a Latin American dance she thought she already knew from growing up in Latin America, all to keep from embarrassing herself in front of Chinese dancers.
Both dances represent different waves of globalization on different generations of Chinese. The older ballroom dancers Wong saw had likely learned the European waltzes before or in the early years of the Communist Revolution, though Wong hopes to uncover more details about the history of ballroom dancing's adoption by the Chinese.
Even Mao Zedong, leader of the Communist Party from 1935 through 1976, knew the steps. "We know that Mao was a skillful dancer," Wong said.
A different dance has found favor with a different generation of Chinese. Younger generations of Chinese have learned salsa from Latin American students and diplomats in China, who taught workshops on the mainland, Wong said.
Salsa, at its roots, is a trans-national dance, developed by Puerto Rican and Cuban immigrants in the New York barrios who often sang about poverty and social alienation. Folks dancing salsa in China today are typically in their 30s and 40s, drawn to it because it has become, in its modern life, cosmopolitan and chic.
Wong's aim is to tease out what these very different dances mean to the different generations of Chinese who adopt them for their own, and what they say about Chinese culture and history.
Wong has her own reasons for going as well. The research gives her a way to explore different parts of her own background: the Latin American culture she grew up in and has studied as a university scholar, and the Chinese culture Wong's father and mother's father grew up in.
Scholars from her host school in Bejiing, Peking University, are also interested in knowledge Wong might glean. And Wong is happy to help them learn about their own country.
"We need to built those connections," Wong said. "We all want to better understand Chinese culture."