How the “Street Dance of China” Fought for World Unity
“Merging foreign and Chinese culture doesn’t take much; a guqin and two people will do.
This statement was used by Mandopop singer Han Geng, one of the four captains of Street Dance of China Season 4 – to present a duet between Chinese choreographer Ma Xiaolong and French hip hop dancer Zyko. While her team’s three-minute dance may have inspired her, it also aptly describes the theme of the final season of the popular variety show Street Chance, created by Chinese streaming site Youku.
At a time when global geopolitics is rife with conflict and division, China street dance strove to make cross-cultural friendships in the most unlikely way – dancing. It may sound like the plot of a cheesy 1980s movie, but when SDC opened its fourth season earlier this year (it debuted in 2018), the show debuted with a different twist – international dancers.
Dance for peace
The last season of SDC invited top dancers from around the world, including ACKY and the Gogo Brothers from Japan, Poppin’C from Switzerland and Bouboo from France, to compete with Chinese dancers to “dance the battle for peace”, as the slogan says of the last season.
While the show picked up on earlier concepts such as exciting dance battles and choreographed team dances, it also introduced a heartwarming element of cultural exchange between people who, instead of sharing a spoken language, communicate through the body language bias.
Many overseas attendees said their motivation to join the show was because it was a rare opportunity to bring such a legendary group of international dancers together on the same stage. For example, MT-POP from Vietnam said he was excited to join the show to learn from legends like ACKY and, in fact, many attendees said they grew up watching ACKY’s videos.
However, among the exciting portfolio of performances, the cultural exchange between national and international dancers that created a unique fusion of Chinese street dance was equally important during the fourth season.
Many Chinese attendees were excited about the prospect of dancing with international dancers and decided to incorporate Chinese influences into their choreography, a style called in the show Zhongguo Feng (which translates to “Chinese style”). Zhongguo Feng is a genre of Chinese music that appeared in the early 2000s, which merges traditional Chinese musical styles with modern musical trends in its instrumental composition.
A prime example was Ma Xiaolong’s solo performance “Chess” in the qualifying rounds, which centered on a Chinese chess game with movements inspired by tai chi. Participant Gai Gai described the performance as “[Ma] infused culture into its choreography ”, and it is this distinctively Chinese flavor that has piqued the interest of many foreign dancers for whom it was the first time they had witnessed a Chinese dance.
For example, Frenchman Rochka said he had never seen a Chinese-style dance before coming to the SDC to organise. “This is the first time that I am really in the [sic] Chinese culture, and I liked it so much.
An endearing fusion of cultures
Many contestants this season have chosen to use Zhongguo Feng themes in their performances, often with storylines highlighting the collaboration between Chinese and non-Chinese dancers.
Captain Lay Zhang’s “A Bite of China”, for example, was choreographed by Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese dancers. The script centered on Chinese dancers Huang Xiao and Bboy George as “waiters” introducing Chinese cuisine to their international teammates MT-POP, KENKEN and Bunta.
MT-POP reflected on that saying, “This time it’s not just about dancing… They are teaching me things about Chinese culture.
And who knew that the style of pop dance that originated in California in the 1960s would fit in so perfectly with Chinese dance?
Watching this fusion created a kind of meta-experience as we saw cultural exchanges take place off and on stage.
We attended duets with Japanese popper ACKY playing a “sweeper monk” alongside his “Chinese disciple” Ma; French hip hop dancer Zyko portrayed Chinese student guqin; while Swiss popper Poppin’C explored Chinese movements through the classic Italian aria “Lascia Ch’io Pianga”.
Beyond the stage
Naturally, this fusion of Chinese dance and street dance was a team effort shaped by team building activities both inside and outside the studio. ACKY stayed after hours to write individual notes in Chinese characters for each of his teammates, for example, and a scroll in Chinese calligraphy for his team captain Han Geng at the end of the show.
Chinese dancer Bboy Keven, meanwhile, got his teammates to try the Sichuan hot pot for the first time. “The purpose of eating this is to explain to Boris and KENKEN the history of the Three Kingdoms in ancient China while eating a fondue,” he explained.
At the table, Keven and his other Chinese teammates used their bowls and vegetables to represent mythical horses and wooden skewers as arrows from rivals. Japanese choreographer KENKEN said, “I am happy to have such a good chance to learn something about Chinese culture.
Cultural exchanges through food also took place between the captains and the dancers. In an episode of Let’s talk, a more relaxed spinoff from China street dance, Poppin’C joined the team captains to eat a fondue and brought tiramisu in exchange. “I want to share this with you because before, at the time, I shared this with my family. It was made by my grandfather and my grandmother, ”he said.
For many international participants, SDC was like a home away from home, or a family.
Aside from dancing, the show also featured a talent show in episode seven, when Rochka brought her own French song on stage, and Captain Henry Lau sang Teresa Teng’s “The Moon Represents My Heart” with his team, with Chinese solos by Rochka and Boris.
While the attendees were brought to the show to dance, it looks like they came out with more than that. Rochka reflected on the friendships he cultivated during the show, saying, “Outside of practice sometimes we have dinner together… It is priceless, you know, after work we are together, and let’s eat, laugh, talk about the day. It’s really nice… I want to have more memories like this.
Obviously this time around SDC looked less like a competition than a global gathering.
“My purpose of being here this time is to share my strength and courage… to communicate with others through the soul of dance. This is the most important part for me, ”said ACKY.
At the end of Ma and Zyko’s duet, Ma handed the guqin to Zyko, who took the Chinese instrument as his own and strummed it with his recently trained fingers. A concrete piece of culture has been transmitted from a Chinese dancer to a foreign dancer; this student of Chinese culture eventually became a master.
Street Dance of China Season 4 is an uplifting series that debuted at a time when the world couldn’t be more divided. As long as this division remains, the spectacle is a reminder of the power of unity; that French dancers learned to play guqin, Chinese dancers tasted tiramisu from a Swiss popper and Japanese choreographers discovered Chinese myths with mala on their tongues.
The fourth season of “Street Dance of China” is available to stream on YouTube.
Cover image via Weibo