Swing shift

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 August, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 28 August, 2009, 12:00am

Zeng Weiming didn't bring much with him when he moved to Beijing two years ago: a suitcase of clothes, a pillow and quilt set - and the saxophone he had been playing since he was 14. The Shenyang native dreamed of becoming a professional jazz musician and would put on his favourite Charlie Parker album as soon as he woke up each morning. Instead, the 24-year-old now finds himself sought out as one of the capital's top swing dancers and instructors.

'If you ask Chinese guys to dance, the immediate reaction from most would be 'no'. It's OK to disco, but if you ask them to take up social dance, they'll think it's not their thing,' says Zeng.

Although salsa, tango and other ballroom genres are popular, yao bai wu, as swing is called in Putonghua, is relatively unknown on the mainland. That's been changing with the help of people such as Adam Lee, the American-Chinese who set up the Swing Beijing club seven years ago and introduced many to the exhilaration of doing such standards as the Lindy Hop, Blues and the Balboa that developed with swing jazz in the 1920s, 30s and 40s.

Lee not only brought Zeng into his Beijing Big Band, he also persuaded him to sign up for swing classes, although it took six months of encouragement before the young man would eventually attempt it.

But Zeng was immediately taken by the dance form. Swing seemed to come naturally, he says. 'I simply felt very happy after the first class.'

For nearly a year, he was virtually the only Chinese man in the group - many others tried swing dancing but none persisted, he recalls. It hardly mattered that instructions were in English, which he didn't speak at the time.

'I didn't understand what they were saying, but I followed the moves. Movement is a language to me. The question is how to 'speak' it beautifully,' he says.

Like Zeng, 26-year-old Sophie Sun started to learn swing from Lee, and now, after nearly two years, the theatre talent agent performs and teaches the dance in her spare time.

'The fun of swing is that everyone knows the basic steps. But with a different partner, different music, different mood, the dance looks so different,' Sun says.

The deft footwork, twists and jumps displayed by contestants at the annual All-China Swing Competition in 2007 inspired Zeng to new heights.

At last year's contest, he and partner Joyce Liu won the championship titles for rehearsed and improvised swing. Months of preparation - with particularly intense daily practices in the two weeks before the competition - paid off.

Although thrilled by his triumph, Zeng was keen to get more Chinese people to put on their dancing shoes and experience the joy of swing.

Achieving that, however, has not been easy. 'Swing is a familiar yet alien term to Chinese people. They might not have heard of the dance, but they'll vaguely know of jazz music,' Zeng says. 'So it's critical to let people see us dance and be influenced by the cheerful atmosphere.'

So this year Zeng and fellow enthusiasts began staging extra social dance nights and an outdoor dance party in the Sanlitun bar area every Sunday. Zeng also hopes to start promoting swing at universities and building interest in the dance at a younger age.

These days, mainland enthusiasts and visiting expats looking to boogie-woogie have a choice of venues including the CD Jazz Cafe, which run regular swing nights. Compared to neighbouring countries such as South Korea and Japan, where there are thousands of local swing enthusiasts, the mainland's scene is small, with no more than 100 regular dancers in Beijing and Shanghai.

However, Russian swing performer and teacher Valeria Tyapaeva, who prefers to be known as Leru, sees exciting parallels between Moscow, which has nurtured thousands of dancers since she left four years ago, and the increasingly lively vibe in Beijing.

From having only one student in her beginners' class, she now often finds up to 20 people signing up for free taster classes.

'Most students in Beijing were expats four years ago, but now we have more and more Chinese students, especially with Zeng's class in Chinese,' says 27-year-old Leru.

Although it can feel as if there are more dance events than swing enthusiasts can fill, Leru reckons they will attract more people and help widen the community. Beijing is also starting to make a name on the international swing scene, with events such as last year's Great Wall Swing Out. A dance camp open to all comers, it attracted 100 dancers for a weekend of classes and social events at locations across the capital, including on the steps of the Great Wall.

But attracting and retaining male dancers remains challenging. Language is not the only barrier holding Chinese men back.

'Chinese men are very afraid of losing face. They are afraid of not being good immediately, especially in front of so many women,' Leru says. 'But now they see a Chinese person doing it and doing great, so they'll think, 'Maybe I can do it too'.'

Zeng is aware of his pivotal role in attracting more local dancers to keep the scene going, and he takes it very seriously.

Many experienced swing dancers improve their skills by joining dance camps around the world every year. Zeng can't afford such trips but tries to compensate by learning from the videos of world-class dancers, one move at a time.

He now teaches three beginners classes and an intermediate class with an English-speaking partner, and, irrespective of mother tongue, Zeng's students appreciate his patient and detailed instruction.

'The swing community is open and friendly and since dancing, I've become more outgoing,' Zeng says. 'I've made friends from around the world, and they are now like family to me.'

It's still a challenge to make a living by teaching swing and playing saxophone, but Zeng is confident about his choice of career and the future of swing on the mainland.

As Chinese cities become more cosmopolitan and work becomes more stressful, he reckons swing can offer fun relief. 'Swing is a carefree and happy dance. It's fun to watch, but you can only truly feel the joy if you dance.'