Latin, and loving it

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 December, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 11 December, 2006, 12:00am

HIS NAME IS ERIC and he's a dancer, with glitter in his hair and a shirt open down to there. Eric Ting Hon-leung may not merengue like the showgirls at the Copacabana, but he can cha-cha with the best of them. He is a junior Latin dance champion and the sparkle and tight-fitting costumes are par for the course.

'Some friends tease, but it doesn't bother me much,' says Eric, 13. 'I'm OK with the flamboyant clothes; just don't ask me to put on makeup.'

His partner, 10-year-old Michelle Hau Ka-yan, feels the same way. 'I hate heavy makeup,' she says. Some sprucing up is unavoidable, however, and Michelle arrives for an exhibition performance in a spangly, ruffled dress, with silvery mascara on her lashes and feathers in her ponytail.

The precocious pair started dance lessons four years ago and have since garnered more than 10 awards at district and school competitions. It's clear why: when the music comes on, Eric and Michelle display as much style and grace as many experienced dancers, and probably more energy. They hope to grab their next prize at the President's Cup Ballroom Dancing Championships at Queen Elizabeth Stadium on New Year's Eve.

Youngsters' interest in ballroom dance, especially the Latin variety, has blossomed of late, thanks largely to the Hong Kong Ballroom Dancing Council's promotion. It was spurred by official recognition of ballroom dancing as a sport: at the East Asian Games in Macau last year, for example, events included the waltz, tango and samba. In 2001, the council started giving free Latin dance lessons to primary schools under a pilot scheme. Now, at least 50 primary and 20 secondary schools are offering such classes.

The buzz is reflected in private dance schools. According to Eric and Michele's dance coach, Kenny Leung Kai-chuen, the number of teenage dance students has risen at least 70 per cent over the past two years. His youngest student is just three.

Fellow teacher Ip Yun-yun says people have become better informed about the benefits of dancing, which used to be regarded as a nightclub pursuit. 'They have a more positive view of Latin dance as it is increasingly recognised as a sport which can help you shape up,' she says. 'Young kids sometimes dance better than the adults because they're more flexible.'

Leung, who chairs the council's youth affairs section, says Latin dance is more easily promoted among youngsters. 'With other dance forms, there's more body contact and we thought the children may be a bit uncomfortable,' he says. 'But Latin dance is more carefree compared to traditional ballroom dances such as the waltz or foxtrot and you can dance with partners of the same sex.'

Michelle, for one, prefers the livelier Latin rhythms. She started ballet lessons at the age of three but never enjoyed it, so switched to Latin dance when she was six.

'Ballet is way too boring for me,' she says. 'In Latin dance, the beats are stronger and I feel like I'm really the centre of attention, especially during contests.'

Eric enjoys the attention, too. His mother initially made him attend classes to correct his poor posture but he slowly fell in love with the energy of Latin dance. 'The most challenging bit is trying to hold an elegant pose for a bar or two,' he says. 'But I feel really proud of myself.'

Polishing their moves requires considerable investment. Between a hectic schedule of school, tuition and homework, the partners take a three-hour class each week with Leung for HK$900 a session. On most weekends their mothers accompany them to studios in Shenzhen, where they can practise for less. Eric also does judo and swims to maintain flexibility.

Michelle keeps a low profile about the hobby at her school, where ballet is viewed as a more appropriate pursuit for girls. But some encourage other dance forms. The Choi Hin To Primary School in Tai Po Market, for example, has introduced weekly Latin dance classes for primary five and six pupils following a successful trial with the dance council.

At one of the extra-curricular dance classes, a group of 20 girls are practising the cha cha. They learn three dance routines every six months, with the taller girls taking on the men's role, a common arrangement since there are usually four girls to one boy in dance classes.

Katherine Zee Tsz-ching, who has been competing in inter-school contests, initially found it hard to accept dancing the man's part. 'It took me some time to adjust,' she says.

But she and her partner, Amy Yuen Wai-kwan, have done well, coming third in Latin dance and fourth in the waltz in an inter-school competition last year. Amy, who switched from traditional Chinese dance, enjoys the more uninhibited Latin moves. 'There are a lot of fixed movements in Chinese dance. But with Latin steps, you can release your energy,' she says. 'You really have to do it well, though, because it isn't a group routine.'

Although dance is unlikely to lead to a lucrative career, Michelle and Eric's parents say they're happy to support the pair's pursuit because it's good for the children's personal growth. 'Even if I stopped her from dancing, her academic performance would not improve dramatically,' says Michelle's mother, Kitty Chung Lai.

Eric concedes school grades can drop a little in the weeks leading to competitions. He finds that acceptable for now, but takes a more pragmatic view of the future. 'I may have to spend less time on dance as I grow older and start preparing for public exams. I don't think that there's a career in this,' he says.

To cut costs, Michelle and Eric's mothers collaborate to sew the pair's costumes for dance competitions themselves. New outfits are needed for each event, so the mums browse dance magazines regularly to check out the latest styles. Each outfit costs about HK$1,000.

'We usually have to alter the designs as the adult styles are too sexy,' says Chung. 'Dresses shouldn't be too short, for example. You don't want to mask their childhood innocence. They should still look a little mischievous.'

Meanwhile, Michelle's dancing has also brought her family closer. Sometimes they watch videos of international events such as the Blackpool Dance Festival together. Her elder sister has since picked up Latin dance and the girls are regularly asked to perform for relatives at home or family gatherings.

'The adults just want to watch them dance because they are more adept at it,' says Chung.

The 17th President's Cup Ballroom Dancing Championships, 2pm, Sun, Dec 31, Queen Elizabeth Stadium, Wan Chai. Inquiries: 2541 6215