I Dance Around, Celebrity Ensues

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Published: October 11th 2010

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WesternersWesternersWesterners


Left to right: Pete (American), me (in garish TV makeup), and Sebastian (Polish). Actually, we’re ALL wearing makeup.

Okay, so I haven’t yet skyrocketed to the top of the Chinese A-list, and I don’t think the foreigner-directed jeers/catcalls on the street (invariably, a snickering hoot, “Hellooo!” Yeah, nihao to you too, jackass) these days are any different from what every other visibly foreign person gets. I have a bit more work to do before I become a household name. But! I was on TV.

You may recall that back in June I let my school make a spectacle of me by dressing me up in Yunnanese minority clothing for an audience. It happens than some representatives from Yunnan TV were there to pick out those of us deemed presentable for television, and in late August I got contacted by my school again to come in for a sort of informational session about a TV program.

The performing arts center on the YNNU campus served as the staging area for this spectacle. Foreign exchange students from schools all around the city, and some from other cities in the province, were brought in to learn exactly what the TV station wanted from us. Most of these exchange students were from surrounding Asian countries–Vietnam, Burma, Thailand, etc. Me and my

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Dressed for international flavor: me as Spain, and a Vietnamese girl and a Thai girl as Vietnam. The girl on the left is preternaturally beautiful, and will almost certainly be seen in a Miss Universe pageant someday.

group had thought they wanted us to rehash our minority costume fashion show. Several people in various levels of authority even mentioned that as a fact to us. As all of the exchange students convened, the TV station director said she wanted to divide us into groups by what sort of performance we were doing. I asked Apeng, the YNNU teacher assigned to keeping track of us wily Western kids, if we were supposed to be counted among the performers doing “dance” programs. No, he told me, they’ll tell you where you belong.

A few minutes after that reassurance, the director asked us casually if we wouldn’t mind participating in a simple dance number they were trying to throw together with a lot of students. We resisted at first, but they insisted I at least try, just for fun, just to see if it worked out. The natural result of this was, over the next few days, our fashion show number was nixed entirely, and I became a featured dancer in a television variety show.

We had two weeks to prepare for the show. A dance teacher who is purportedly the best in Yunnan and one of the

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Indonesian girl Monycha and Thai boy Gao Yun preparing for the Thai portion of the international dance medley.

top 20 dance instructors in China was in charge of getting us up to snuff. Somehow myself and a few dozen other exchange students managed to learn several numbers. The lineup for the show was fairly ambitious, with an emphasis on Yunnanese minority songs and dances, but also with plenty of homogenized Chinese content, and a few international supplements. I found myself involved in four different numbers, and I was also interviewed on stage alongside another American boy, by one of the Chinese hosts (professional television personalities).

My first number was in the intro piece to the variety show. Along with two other Western boys, I performed a Spanish bullfight-inspired dance. This dance medley also included a hip-hop dance performed by a Chinese dancer and a Ghanaian boy (he openly protested that he doesn’t know how any hip-hop dancing, and can only do African dance, and the Chinese reaction was “But you’re black!”), and Japanese, Vietnamese, and Thai solos. All of these international dances were framed by a few dozen backup dancers in truly insane, generically fabulous getups: the girls wore something that could be described as a Liberace-collared French maid dress, and the boys. . . just refer

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Take a moment to appreciate the breathtaking costume this boy is in: Hairy gold shirt, complete with a front ruffle, silver pants with a light blue running stripe AND an inexplicable sequined diaper.

to the picture on the left.

The next number I was in was part of a series called “Dream of Yunnan.” This included five relatively brief singing solos, instrumental performances, and dances. Mine was a rendition of a traditional Dai minority (southern Yunnan ethnic group, easily comparable to Thai culture) love song called “There is a Beautiful Place.” A Japanese boy played this song on a gourd flute, while a Burmese boy and girl danced the part of the lovers meeting in the moonlight. Then myself, an Indonesian girl, and a Thai boy entered wearing traditional, stylized “peacock” costumes (for the girls, dresses covered with glittering feather designs, with flowing skirts that can be lifted and twirled in representation of the tail feathers). In the style of Dai peacock dances, there was much twirling and posing with elaborate hand gestures.

After that was a number called, loosely, “Chinese Style.” It was probably the most ambitious of all, and was made to be a mashup of all the traditional Chinese culture one could possibly fit into seven minutes. It started with a Thai boy from my school, who is a skilled Chinese language elocutionist, reciting a poem about the

The Burmese KidsThe Burmese KidsThe Burmese Kids


In costume for the fan dance, a pretty technical piece that I danced in as well. Cute as buttons, them.

grandness of the moonlight, in front of a giant screen with a computer generated moon on it (I should mentioned that all of these numbers were indeed performed on a TV sound stage with professional lighting and a video screen behind playing relevant montages). While he spoke, two other exchange students in scholarly robes and an English woman in a silk dress flanked the stage and practiced slow, deliberate calligraphy. After the poem, two Polish girls and a Polish boy shuffled onto the stage in Beijing opera costumes and shuffled around, then shuffled back off. All this time, a band of Tai-Chi artists in white silk pajamas have been biding their time on the stage, frozen in different poses. The music shifts to a plinky Tai-Chi appropriate song, and they come together to perform a synchronized series. WHILE they do this, a Thai boy who is dressed as a warrior is performing fancy swordsmanship moves and jumps, also following the music, but at twice the tempo. Really cool effect, beside the super-slow Tai-Chi, I think. Then, another change in the music, and the first performers run off stage, while myself and the other fan dancers run on. We’re in red

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Monycha preparing for her dance solo in a Hani costume fit for mobility.

and gold pajamas, wielding red and gold fans, which we use as props in a highly choreographed dance routine. Another American, Pete, and I have a solo in the middle. When the fan dance is finished, students carrying giant peony “petals” (pink nylon gauze stretched over wire frames) come to the front of the stage, and we run off behind them. A young Brazilian girl sings a song about the beauty of China, and a dozen girls in red and white Mandarin collar silk gowns step and sway around her while dangling Chinese macrame ornaments. Finally, the peony petals come together to put the singer in the center of a giant blossom, and the calligraphy artists unfurl the scroll they have written. And the crowd goes wild.

Several other song and dance routines follow, while I get ready for my interview. Pete and I go on stage in Naxi minority costumes (not to be confused with Nazi, okay?). The jocular male host is brimming with banter. We charm the crowd by talking about the joys of living in Kunming, and show off some of the local dialect we have picked up. You want to know how cheesy it is?

The host asks in Mandarin, “Can you say anything in Kunming dialect?”
Me: “Well, only a little. I can say something that every girl needs to know how to say. . . ”
Him:”And what’s that?”
Me, in dialect: “Go shopping!

Oh, us foreigners are so cute. But, television is what it is, and trite humor will always have an audience!

The final number of the show was an all-out grand finale thing. All of the dancers wore different Yunnanese minority costumes. I was dressed as a Naxi woman. At a certain point, Pete and I had a brief solo where he lifted me up and twirled me around. Then three stunning girls in matching Dai costumes took center stage to do this incredibly cute dance we’ve taken to calling the “duck-foot.” My Indonesian buddy Monycha did a bubblegum hip-hop dance in Hani costume. All of this was bookended by extremely cheesy group dancing that involved running in place, and a lot of synchronized waving of arms. And then, we were on TV, the end! Oh, and I’m supposed to get a DVD of this, too. To be continued, I guess.

If you’re wondering why I continue to make a spectacle of my foreign self in China, I guess it’s just because I try to live by the philosophy that many things are worth doing just for the story alone. I met all kinds of other exchange students in the process, and I learned a bit about how Chinese TV filming works. I also learned new vocabulary, like “choreography” and “backstage.” I’m leaving China in less than a week now, and I’m trying to cram as much crazy Chinese stuff as possible into my days!


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