It was a long, hot Chinese summer, as Chinese summers tend to be. Especially in the middle and southern parts of the country, the heat can become almost unbearable at times. On one particular day, I was out shopping with my colleague, Ivy, an English teacher in my school. Ivy was petite and cute I often envied the way that her perfect, soft Asian skin never even hinted at a glisten of sweat. I, on the other hand, was a slave to the temperature, with salty water pouring off of my face and dampening unsightly lines down my back. We spent the morning wandering the markets and small shops of Anji, a small city where relatively little happens on the average day.
Merchants were lazing about their shops, casually re-shelving items or idly offering advice to discerning buyers about the colours of t-shirts or sizes of socks. It was the type of day when no one bothered to bargain the prices up or down because the sun and temperature were too intense for that amount of effort. After several long hours scanning shop windows and mulling over cheap earrings and other accessories in the June humidity, Ivy mysteriously suggested, "Let's go cool off."
She led me up two flights of stairs in a corner building across from the KFC. As we neared the top, I could hear music emanating from somewhere above. We paid 6 RMB each to a woman at the door, and walked into a dark, pounding nightclub. At least, it appeared to be a nightclub on first glance. Timidly, Ivy and I ventured inside and stopped short as darkness surrounded us. The energetic beats of boisterous music pulled us farther inside, and I squinted, letting my eyes adjust to the newfound shadowy dimness of the interior.
In actuality, it was a dance hall. Inside, a slew of Chinese people were jitterbugging, waltzing, and doing the samba, gliding across the floor in perfect time with one another. What struck me most was that they weren't dancing to any traditional music, Chinese, ballroom or otherwise, but to loud, pulsing pop music. Having learned some ballroom and swing dance during my time in university, I got excited at the prospect of a chance to oil up my rusty dancing skills. Up until that moment, my experience with Chinese dancing mostly involved variations on the same awkward, drunk gyrating-slash-hopping in countless discos around the country. But here… no here was a different thing. These dancers were trained... sliding gracefully around the dance floor in a one-two-three…one-two-three waltz or a rhythmic back-forth-back-forth salsa.
As Ivy and I settled into a booth in one corner, already occupied by several other colleagues from our school and friends of Ivy's I hadn't met before, I noticed that there were actually dance teachers were roaming around the floor. They appeared to be mainly men and they wore nametags and asked random individuals for a dance. Although no formal lessons were ever really held, the instructors taught by example and experience, meeting each person at their level. You were expected to learn simply by watching and doing.
I really preferred to watch, mostly because I wanted to keep a low profile and not make a "lao wai scene" as a foreign spectacle, but the afternoon wore on and eventually I was persuaded to have a go. The music dictated a one-two, one-two-three rhythm of the cha-cha, and, although this tune lacked the spicy sounds of the dance's Cuban heritage, the sentiment was there nonetheless. My cha-cha moves returned to me easily and, in no time, I was fluidly step-step-stepping around the room along with everyone else, watching out that my inappropriate sandaled footwear didn't compromise me into a fall on the slippery clean floor. Later, I learned that the man with whom I'd cha-cha'ed was actually the head teacher of the dance hall.
He spoke neither English nor Putonghua - only the local dialect of Anji, a language nearly unintelligible to Mandarin speakers. With nothing but the dance as our common language, we managed to cross the largest of cultural barriers and found mutual understanding in the moves we both knew. Amidst our rhythmic swaying, he peered up at my towering foreign height with an aging, gap-toothed grin. And we didn't need to say anything more than that.