A Chinese dance class expresses the universal language

Music and movement communicate health and community in Seattle’s International District.

WHEN THE MUSIC starts, they gather in the middle of the room at the International District/Chinatown community center. As Chinese lyrics play over the speakers, they lift their arms gracefully, chins held aloft, and move in sync with the choreography.

The women gather twice a week for Chinese dance. They talk to each other in Mandarin, interspersed with Cantonese for those from Guangdong. They switch to English for Louise, the one non-Chinese dancer. But the English interludes are infrequent; they prefer Chinese.

When I showed for my first class, the women greeted me warmly, asking whether I could speak Mandarin. I told them I studied Chinese in college and lived in China for a year, but I am rusty. They spoke to me in English at first, but class was taught in Chinese, so that turned into our main mode of communication. I was in their world, after all.

Luckily, dance is a universal language, and I am a practiced mimic. We started off with a warmup dance, then shifted into a dance they had been working on. One woman told me they were still learning, so don’t worry if I didn’t get it right away.

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We followed one of the teachers, Joy, who took us through one full song and then broke down the steps in Chinese. I was happy I could follow the demonstrations of steps and counting, plus discussions of arm placement and occasional twirls. Chinese traditional dance can feel balletic: Arms, hand and head placement distinguish the style, and I tried to follow their elegant fingers and tilt my chin properly.

During the first dance, the steps were simple, but my shoulders grew tired from constant arm movements. For the second song, the steps were more complicated. The women knew this one, so Joy and I sat it out.

I loved watching them perform. They changed from women who reminded me of…

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