Note to self: when in China, a morning walk through the park can lead to recruitment with the local Chinese dance group.  By some ironic twist of fate, I woke up this morning (my only day off while we are here in Shijizhaung) around 7:30 am.  After taking an uncomfortably lukewarm shower (apparently even that early there’s no hot water), I got dressed for the day and pulled on my kaki pants.  In my haste to pack my suitcase in Shanghai, I had wedged them into the only open cranny, and they looked as though they had dried after a hasty run through a meat grinder.  

Lacking an iron in China isn't really the end of the world.  The thick humidity that drips from the air usually does the trick, and seeing as my pants were pretty wrinkled, I decided to go for a stroll in the nearby park.  From my gigantic hotel room window on the 12th floor, the park looks somewhat large, but once you’re down there in person, you realize it’s enormous!  I really didn’t expect to see too many people up and about that early in the morning, but apparently in China, the park is the place to be in the morning.  Teenagers swerved gracefully in and out of cone obstacles on their rollerblades, a choir director waved his baton in unison to the sweet tones of a group of singers, and on every other sidewalk block, there was a person or group of people doing Tia Chi. There was even a man smacking the concrete with a 12 foot bull whip causing what sounded like a gun shot to echo across the area.  A crowd of onlookers oowed and awed from a safe distance as he twirled and smacked his whip like Indiana Jones.    

I very much admire the Chinese outlook on exercise.  Their insatiable energy is contagious and inspiring, especially when you see middle aged to elderly men and woman actively bouncing about in the sunshine, smiling and laughing in the company of their fellow fit buddies.  Unlike the typical Westerner who gripes about the aches and pains accrued from an hour of exercise, the Chinese seem to view their daily workout as a time to spend with their peers, and also a way to carry on tradition.  


Yangge, a form of Chinese folk dance is just such an example of this syndication of exercise and tradition.  The dance is usually performed in public parks by large groups of men and women.  Vibrant with energy, these dancers, most of them elderly, sway to blaring music moving their arms, heads and feet as they imitate the motions of birds, dragons, elephants and other mystical creatures through dance.

I’ve seen these groups in previous cities we have visited, and each time I wonder about the details of the group.  Do you have to pay money to join them?  Do you have to be a certain age?  Do you have to go through some kind of initiation?  Little did I know as I walked through the park, I was about to find out. 

As I looked down at my pants to see if any of the wrinkles had flattened out, I caught a woman wearing a brilliantly bright turquoise polo staring at me out of the corner of my eye.  She held my gaze for a moment and then scurried up to join me, her matching brilliantly bright turquoise parasol bouncing over her shoulder with each hurried step. 

“Hello,” she said enthusiastically.  

“Hi,” I replied hesitantly expecting her to whip out her camera at any moment to get a shot with the white girl.  

“You come with me,” she stated as she pointed down the sidewalk, her cheeks as plump as McIntosh apples in the fall. 

She took my arm, and I didn’t really have much choice in the matter after that.  I could have pushed her off, I suppose, but she was determined and scrappy, plus my pants were still pretty wrinkled.  What the heck, I thought.  

She led me to the edge of a large concrete square on which a group of women were dancing in unison to what sounded like traditional Chinese music put to heavy metal background music.  

My new friend took my hand, and together we weaved in and out of the dancers as she raised her voice above the music and drew the ladies attention to the white girl she’d brought to dance class.  

She stopped me near the front of the formation and pointed to a woman wearing a polka dot frilly dress with matching visor, and said “teacher”.  She then situated me directly behind her and said in a somewhat demanding voice, “you dance”.  

Oh good lord.  Not only did I not wear my moo-moo with matching accessories, but now I was also expected to make a fool of myself in front of these strangers?  There literally was no way out, they were all staring at me, waiting. 

Well, here goes, I thought.  I spread my arms out and bent into a deep lounge to mirror the teacher.  Together we flapped our “wings” and I tried my best to keep up.  Thankfully the dance I joined in on was slower pace, and somewhat balletic in nature, so it came a bit easier than I expected.  

Just when I thought I caught on, I was thrown a loop, as the music picked up and the teacher began to kick, hop and step at high speed.  I frantically flapped about as I searched around to see if anyone else was struggling.  To my surprise, everyone seemed to know exactly what they were doing, not too many beginners in this group.  Finally the music wound down and the teacher hit the final bird pose in which she balanced on one leg with the other held out in a 90-degree angle with her palms pressed together above her head.  I tried to replicate it, hopped for a few clumsy seconds and then caught my breath as I lowered my leg.  As I panted and wiped sweat off my forehead, several of the ladies approached me with compliments.  

“Very good!” they praised.  At first I assumed they were pulling my chain, and wondered how many gullible tourists had been lured into their web of humiliation.  But as the dances went on and they continued to offer kind smiles and broken words of encouragement, I began to understand they truly enjoyed my effort and were grateful for my interest in their tradition. 

Once I loosed up a bit, I found this form of working out very enjoyable.  In fact, I was having such a good time that I was surprised when I looked at my watch to realize I’d spent nearly an hour and a half dancing with these ladies.  Not wanting to miss the continental breakfast at the hotel, I gathered my things and said my thank yous.  Before I left, the lady in the turquoise said “tomorrow, same time”.  I agreed to be back the next day, and hurried off to eat a hearty breakfast of fried rice and beef and mushrooms, (yep, that’s what they serve for breakfast).           

I went back every morning that we weren’t working that week, sometimes bringing friends to the ladies’ delight.  One day I woke up a little later, and wore my sweats to dance class.  I had seen ladies wearing warm up clothing, so I figured it wouldn’t be too much of an issue. 

I’m still trying to figure out if I was told by the ladies that the dancing they were performing that morning was a couples dance and I needed a partner, and that maybe if I wore a skirt I could get one, or if my attire was simply too casual for the class, but at any rate, I was sent back to my room to change.  When I came back out to the park wearing a sundress, the ladies smiled in approval and before I knew it, an older Chinese gentleman was spinning me around the concrete dance floor.  Eventually my mistakes wore on his patience though, and I joined the rest of the ladies in the dances I was beginning to master.  They perform the same dances every morning, which explained why everyone had seemed to grasp the choreography instantly. 

Even on the days I couldn’t participate, the ladies still waved as I passed by on my way to work.  Apparently I gained their approval and their friendship.  I certainly will never forget my stint as a temporary member of their special dancing group.