Throwback Thursday is when we trawl through the That's archives for a work of dazzling genius written at some point in our past. We then republish it. On a Thursday.
By Tongfei Zhang
Dance has never been more popular. A flurry of dance crazes along with teenage films like Step Up and TV shows such as So You Think You Can Dance? have fueled a rage for the art form among youths worldwide.
But dancing isn’t just for the kids. And, proving that there’s no age limit to strutting your stuff, two sassy senior Shanghai-based dance crews tell us about their life-changing passion for boogie.
The Dancing Boys of Shanghai
Caohejing Crew isn’t your regular dance ensemble. Not because its members are all male, but mainly because their average age is well above 50. A former tai chi team in the community of Caohejing, Xuhui District, the crew decided to branch out into dancing three years ago, both as an experiment from a local Fitness Bureau Department aimed at getting more men to exercise, and as a resolution to try out a different kind of learning experience. Originally an ensemble of 10, the team now counts 16 dancers. The oldest performer is 75 years old, the youngest a spritely 58.
"Our families have been very supportive, we just had to learn how to balance dancing with our home chores."
“We’re having an incredible time together. It’s like being part of a family,” says 58-year-old Wu Jianqiao, who acts as leader of the elderly crew. “Our eldest dancer – 75-year-old Liu Jinrong – comes to rehearsals all the way from Zhabei District, and tries each and every move we put together. He handles the limitations of age incredibly well. Dancing, or even watching us dance, is therapeutic for him.”
“If I don’t see them over the week I feel very uneasy,” Liu agrees. “As if I am missing something, or I am neglecting a very important duty.”
Rehearsing takes up quite a lot of the crew’s time, with regular training held throughout the week. The dancers, Wu tells us, always work their schedules around practice. “Our families have been very supportive of what we do,” he says. “And we have just had to learn how to balance dancing with our home chores.”
It takes two to three months to put together a dance routine. Shi Junna, the team’s 30-year-old instructor, helps them to create movements that are easy to repeat. “Given their age, poses and routines can’t be too fast or overly exaggerated,” says Shi.
“Arm-leg coordination can be quite tough to master for some of us,” adds Wu. “But what we really strive for is expressing ourselves in a way we wouldn’t normally be able to.”
For these old groovers, the encounter with dance has been amusing and liberating. But they take their performances seriously too and have won several prizes in their municipal dancing competitions. They claim their secret is a combination of professional practice with a desire to entertain the audience.
“People like watching men dance!” says Wu proudly. “We can look as good as women, and dance as well as them. On top of that, we make our audience smile.”
For many members of the crew, dancing has been truly life changing. “We feel like our most essential selves when we’re practicing,” Wu explains. “There’s something quite special and gracious about dancing into third age.”
Country Girls about Town
“If you like something, just go with your gut and do it.”
It was with this thought in mind that 42-year-old Zhang Ling decided to sign up her all-female dance crew, Countryside 456, for China’s Got Talent. “I thought that we would at least get some good memories out of it. And trying never hurt anyone.”
What she didn’t expect was that their Elvis Presley-style dance routine would not only impress the jury and audience, but that her gang of dancing ayis would also be invited to perform at the Grand Hall of the People in Beijing as part of the reality program’s nationwide tour.
“I still can’t figure out how we managed to make it to Beijing,” says Zhang. “We are just ordinary dance lovers.”
Hailing from the country suburbs of Fengxian District in Shanghai, Countryside 456 is an ensemble of nine ayis – a mix of housewives and retired ladies – between 40 and 65 years old. When Zhang, the youngest of the group, decided to have her crew audition for China’s Got Talent, few of her team members – and no one in her family – took her seriously. “It happened spontaneously. I just thought, ‘Why can’t we dance on that stage too?’”
Their routine for the first selection stage was a mix of jazz and modern dance similar to the fitness dancing many women practice across countless squares in China. Although deemed too simple for the TV program, Countryside 456 was allowed to go on the show and perform in the Shanghai Concert Hall. It was in preparation for this performance that the idea of an Elvis Presley-inspired dance number featuring splits, pirouettes and more came about.
“It was tough training, given our time limitations. We got bruises almost everywhere on our legs and shoulders, and one ayi even had a waist injury from doing a 360-degree spin. She had to wear plasters for six months.”
"We got bruises almost everywhere on our legs and shoulders, and one ayi even had a waist injury while doing a 360 spin."
Their efforts paid off. The ayis got a ‘Yes’ from two out of the three judges and were invited to dance in Beijing, an honor reserved for only 16 dance troupes. This time, they worked on a cheerleader-style routine, once again leaving the audience stunned.
“Our birth certificates may make people think that we’re old, but we don’t feel that way. Dancing keeps us young at heart,” says 62-year-old ayi Zhuang Jie.
That these spirited ladies don’t feel their age is clear from their eye-popping outfits to the fiery way they talk about their love affair with the stage. As one of the judges on China’s Got Talent said, seeing a 65-year-old ayi holding her leg to her head is really quite incredible. We find it simply inspiring.
This article first appeared in the March 2013 issue of That's Shanghai. To see more Throwback Thursday posts, click here.