Dancing the year away

In the Chinese Year of the Goat, Ginger Rogers taught me how to dance.

The January chill had already settled over the campus of Jiangxi Normal University in Nanchang, China, where I was teaching English. In one week, the school would close for the Chinese New Year holidays. I had just dismissed my final class before the break when one of my students, Lee Ping, approached me.

"Teacher, do you like to dance?" she asked.

Visions of my university life came to mind. I remembered lively nights at student clubs, where my friends and I enjoyed free-dancing to the beat of popular recording artists.

"Why, yes," I replied. "In America, I used to dance quite a lot."

Lee Ping brightened.

"Will you come with me to the student dance Thursday night?" she asked. "This is our last dance in the Year of the Goat."

I knew about these dances. I had often seen the students gathering outside the gymnasium, waiting for the doors to open and the dance to begin. I was always curious but thought that it wasn't appropriate for a foreign teacher to attend. My student assured me, however, that I was very welcome. So I accepted her invitation.

On Thursday evening, I waited in my apartment for my student to escort me to the dance. I anticipated an experience much like what I was accustomed to in the States. From my wardrobe, I chose a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt with a gold "Jazz!" emblazoned across the front. I wanted to look trendy for my dancing debut among the Chinese.

When I opened the door to an insistent knock, I was expecting Lee Ping. But there before me stood Ginger Rogers, or rather her Asian counterpart. Lee Ping was dressed in a fitted jacket, embroidered with flowers and trimmed in fluffy white fabric. A red wool skirt fell from her tiny waist and swept about her ankles. Her hair was pulled back, held in place by a rainbow of silk daisies. She presented a dazzling figure, straight from the movie set of an MGM holiday extravaganza. I half expected the suave Fred Astaire to come gliding down the hallway after her.

I had concerns about my casual attire, but Lee Ping insisted I looked fine. She linked her arm in mine and hustled me into the cold night air.

When we arrived at the gymnasium, the doors had just opened and the students were hurrying inside. I marveled at their evening wear. Everyone was dressed so well. The men sported shirts, knitted winter vests, and slacks, while the ladies looked elegant in long skirts and colorful winter jackets. For poor, countryside students, such a display seemed magical, as if Cinderella's fairy godmother had been hard at work, granting everyone's wish for a final, fanciful New Year's ball.

Lee Ping pushed our way into the dimly lit building. Festive Christmas lights, strung over our heads and along the walls, gave the cold, dreary place a holiday feel.

Over the loudspeakers, a welcome was announced in Chinese. The crowd quickly spread across the concrete floor. I poised, preparing my feet for a modern beat, when an ear-splitting "Tennessee Waltz" exploded over my head.

I didn't know what to think.

But I was truly dumfounded when Lee Ping suddenly whisked me into her arms, firmly placed her hand about my waist, and twirled me off into the melee of waltzing students. Nor were we the only same-sex couple. The floor was full of them, including young men trying desperately not to step on each other's feet. Everyone was talking, laughing, and joking. This was a time for fun. Yet I felt very self-conscious. It was obvious I had no idea what I was doing.

"I don't know how to dance like this!" I shouted to Lee Ping above the music. "Maybe I'll just watch!"

But Lee Ping wasn't about to let me off so easily.

"I'll teach you!" she shouted back and pulled me to a corner of the gym where other inept dancers, like myself, were receiving instructions from friends.

FOR an hour, Lee Ping worked with me on basic dance steps. She modeled proper form. She critiqued my movements. Eventually, she paired me with other beginners, then watched us bumble our way through the maze of people.

For the last dance of the evening, Lee Ping joined me on the floor. A sappy Chinese folk song reverberated throughout the gymnasium as we glided here and there, weaving our way around other couples. I felt I had accomplished a great deal that night, but it was Lee Ping's parting words that ushered me into the world of dance.

"May I tell you something?" the Ginger Rogers of Asia shouted above the music as we twirled.

"Of course!" I returned.

Gazing into my eyes, she burst forth with genuine sincerity, "Teacher, now you are beautiful!"

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