Music and movement communicate health and community in Seattle’s International District.

Share story

WHEN THE MUSIC starts, they gather in the middle of the room at the International District/Chinatown community center. As Chinese lyrics play over the speakers, they lift their arms gracefully, chins held aloft, and move in sync with the choreography.

The women gather twice a week for Chinese dance. They talk to each other in Mandarin, interspersed with Cantonese for those from Guangdong. They switch to English for Louise, the one non-Chinese dancer. But the English interludes are infrequent; they prefer Chinese.

When I showed for my first class, the women greeted me warmly, asking whether I could speak Mandarin. I told them I studied Chinese in college and lived in China for a year, but I am rusty. They spoke to me in English at first, but class was taught in Chinese, so that turned into our main mode of communication. I was in their world, after all.

Luckily, dance is a universal language, and I am a practiced mimic. We started off with a warmup dance, then shifted into a dance they had been working on. One woman told me they were still learning, so don’t worry if I didn’t get it right away.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

We followed one of the teachers, Joy, who took us through one full song and then broke down the steps in Chinese. I was happy I could follow the demonstrations of steps and counting, plus discussions of arm placement and occasional twirls. Chinese traditional dance can feel balletic: Arms, hand and head placement distinguish the style, and I tried to follow their elegant fingers and tilt my chin properly.

During the first dance, the steps were simple, but my shoulders grew tired from constant arm movements. For the second song, the steps were more complicated. The women knew this one, so Joy and I sat it out.

I loved watching them perform. They changed from women who reminded me of my own Chinese aunts to focused performers, their eyes bright and alive as they twirled and sometimes leapt around the floor.

When I joined in, I did my best, though with less success with the turns and hops.

When I returned for a second class, I knew the drill. I took a lime-green fabric flower than had been handed to me, clipped it in my hair and joined in when the music started.

There were more women this time. A different teacher, also named Joy, who had a focused gaze and elegant head posture, led us through a new dance. This dance was slower, and easier to follow.

We also danced to music played by an erhu (a two-stringed Chinese instrument); it felt like ballet with releves to the balls of our feet and extended arms. We practiced dances from the previous week, and I nailed more turns. Louise also took us through a few Zumba numbers to songs including Maroon 5’s “Moves Like Jagger.” The women protested during Zumba that they were tired, and Louise said two more songs. We finished the 90-minute class with more Chinese dance.

“We do it for health purposes and to have fun,” Joy, my first teacher, told me in English.

They also like each other’s company. After class, we went to lunch at a nearby restaurant. They plied me with packets of sunflower seeds and told me to eat more. I found out one woman was 70. When I expressed surprise at her age, she laughed and said it was the dancing and exercise that keep her so youthful.