Ballroom dance – from contempt to admiration

Saturday, November 6, 2010
Issue 1158, Page 4 – 8
Word count: 1818
Published in: Macau Daily Times – Weekend Times Magazine No. 65

By Poyi (Natalie) Leung

People looked down on you if you told them you were learning ballroom dance in the 1990s. “What’s wrong with you?” they often asked with aversion, recalled Lau Chi Cheung and Ku Oi I, who were already married when they “accidentally” found themselves on the dance floor back in 1998.

“It was a general view of the people at that time, especially the older ones, it didn’t matter whether you were rich or not,” Lau says.

Some friends did say the same to the couple, but they chose to insist on doing what they liked to do and ignore the others’ disapproval.

“People thought dancing was not a proper thing to practice because it requires the two dancers of the opposite sex to really get close to each other. So a married couple would form the best partnership as it wouldn’t be embarrassing for them.”

But twelve years have passed and “fortunately” this mindset has faded away as time goes by. “Nowadays people will actually envy you when they know that you’re a ballroom dancer. The attitude and perception are very positive now,” Lau tells the Macau Daily Times in his old-style Chinese cafe restaurant in downtown Macau. Looking around at the framed old photos being mounted on the walls, one could be forgiven for thinking they had just entered a ballroom dance association instead of a cafe. More than 20 photos, no smaller than A4 size, showcase the beautiful dance steps of the couple and the days when they participated in competitions abroad, certainly a memory that they enjoy recalling and showing to their customers every day.

Lau and his wife were 47 and 44 years old in 1998. One night when they were having dinner with a friend, who was a ballroom dance teacher, they were encouraged to try dancing. In the beginning they only looked on it as recreation.

“Our two sons were already old enough to take care of themselves and so we decided to give it a try,” Ku says.

Within the same year the couple made their debut in a local competition, held specially for less experienced dancers. From there they brought home the championship title of Tango dance and came fourth in Waltz dance.

“It was after these awards that we started to really fall in love with ballroom dance and want to achieve a higher level,” Ku smiles.

In their prime the couple practised almost every day, aside from the days when they had to attend classes in Zhuhai, which cost them 500 patacas for each class, an amount that Lau describes as “quite a lot” back in the 90s.

It was perhaps another reason that made ballroom dance not so popular during that time.

Lau says ballroom dance is easy to pick up, but if you want to dance well and reach a professional level, having sufficient time, a fixed partner who you can dance comfortably with and practise with regularly, a good teacher as well as enough financial support will be the basic requirements.

A pricy interest

“Dancing is very expensive. No one dares to look at how much they have spent behind,” he says, disclosing that the money could be enough to pay off “a few home mortgage loans”.

Classes given by a foreign teacher usually charge over 1,000 patacas per class, while local teachers charge a couple hundred less, he tells the MDT.

Dance wear is not cheap either. Lau says a simple dress for International Standard style of dancing had cost his wife over 10,000 patacas.

Yet, it is certain that the couple do not regret learning ballroom dance. In just the short moment when they were called the representatives of Macau on stage in competitions abroad, the pride and honour have convinced them that the spending is all worth it, Lau recalls.

“When you can successfully do a beautiful dance move, people applaud and clap hands, it’ll make you very happy.”

Not only has ballroom dance broadened their vision, Lau believes that it has also improved their sentiment and health and brought them a lot of friends.

Throughout the years they had participated in countless competitions such as in Taiwan, Malaysia, Xiamen, Shenzhen and Macau, and also won numerous trophies and titles. The pair has not taken part in contests since the 2008 competition in Sabah, Malaysia where they also won awards.

Lau admits that nowadays he and his wife do not dance as much as they used to in early days, mainly because they have less spare time available and weaker physical strength.

The couple have learned the two main categories of ballroom dance – International Standard and International Latin – each consisting of five different dances.

But they are particularly good at International Standard style, namely Waltz, Tango, Viennese waltz, Foxtrot and Quickstep.

Lau says he is worried that they will have no successors as there are only about five or six pairs of experienced International Standard dancers left in Macau and they are already “not young”.

International Latin, which generally refers to Samba, ChaChaCha, Rumba, Pasodoble and Jive, is easier to perfect compared to International Standard and is more attractive to young learners because of its fast-paced, often sensual and sexy hip movements, he explains.

The three-year-old granddaughter of the couple has also fallen in love with Latin dance after watching a competition at the Tap Seac Pavilion in 2009 and will go to classes whenever the summer holidays come.

Explosive vs. elegant

Carmen Tsui Lai Fong, who is currently coaching five teams representing Macau in international ballroom dance events, describes Latin dance as “vivacious and cheerful, with lively music rhythm and suitable for children”, while the International Standard style is “elegant with a more ‘palace’ feel, with classical music and suitable for people who have a slender figure and prefer ‘less-noisy’ dance steps”.

The Macau Dancesport Federation (MDSF) is the entity representing Macau in dancesport events, and is affiliated with the International Dancesport Federation (IDSF) and Asian Dancesport Federation (ADSF).

Dancesport denotes competitive ballroom dancing, as contrasted to social or exhibition dance.

Tsui, who has been working full-time for the MDSF since 2003, says beginners usually start with dancing Tango, Waltz and ChaChaCha.

She says generally everybody can learn ballroom dance. If you only want to dance in leisure time or social events, you can start learning as late as in the 20s, but if you aim at the professional level and joining competitions, you ought to be trained since childhood as the older you start the more hard work you will need to put in.

There are about 1,000 ballroom dance lovers of different ages learning with the MDSF and the youngest ones are just around five years old. While females account for the majority, Tsui says male learners are also increasing.

The colourful and pretty dance dresses, she adds, are usually the reasons that draw girls onto the dance floor.

Meanwhile, chief executive officer of the MDSF, Fiona Tang Kam Seong, disclosed that most of the learners only want to be amateur ballroom dancers, but those who show talents and potential will soon be identified by the coaches and invited to receive more intensive training.

Tang recalls that from the 1950s to the 1980s, social dance was more prevalent. Then in mid 80s ballroom dance changed to become a form of competitive dance after it was introduced to Macau from Hong Kong.

In the early days most of the learners were grown-ups who had the financial ability to afford expensive tuition fees and dance wear.

“The youths used to believe that only people in their 50s or 60s would go to learn ballroom dance. But after it became a dancesport, their perception changed,” Tang tells the MDT.

In recent years a lot more children, teenagers and young adults have joined the ballroom dancing community, largely thanks to the promotion and sponsorship of the Macau Government, she added.

“We can say that ballroom dance is flourishing in Macau right now.”

There are currently about 20 ballroom dance associations in the territory, in addition to the dance classes organised by social service organisations.

Tsui admits that there are more options for people to choose what to learn and ballet is no longer the only kind of dance available on the list.

Even adults will be influenced by the little ones and start to show an interest in ballroom dance as well. “Some parents also want to learn to dance after watching their children perform or practice,” she smiles.

Looking for lovers

Desmond Lau Tak Kuong and Iris Ao Sut In give classes in their Macau International Ballroom Dancing General Association’s studio in Avenida do Coronel Mesquita near Hoi Fu Garden almost every day. And on every Wednesday they will meet their students, whoever wants to come, in Portas do Sol where they have dinner and then dance together beside the live band.

They have more than 300 students ranging from as young as two years old to up to 70 years old.

While quite a large number of the learners are professionals such as lawyers, Ao says housewives usually attend the morning and afternoon classes, young adults at night and children on weekends.

Some of them pick up ballroom dance simply because they want to make more friends or do some exercises out of their daily routine. Some go there and eventually find themselves a girlfriend or boyfriend, but there are also some who aim to be professional dancers, she adds.

Desmond Lau, who the couple Lau Chi Cheung and Ku OiI describe is the “teacher of all [ballroom dance] teachers in Macau”, has over 30 years of experience and has been giving classes full-time since the 1990s.

And he still dances around four to five hours every day with his students.

For the beginner’s level, Ao says simple dance steps are taught and it takes about eight classes to finish learning the basics of one dance.

“Ballroom dance is very popular nowadays and has no age limit. More and more young people want to learn it because of the promotion of the Government and teachers,” Lau says.

Mrs Pao has been a student of Lau for almost three years. “By learning ballroom dance I don’t have to always play mah-jong!” she laughs. “It also helps train my memory as we’ve to bear in mind the steps.”

Helen Choi practices four days a week in the association’s studio. Ao jokes with her and calls her a “ballroom dance addict”.

Five years ago Helen still thought ballroom dance was old-fashioned. But once she got herself into it she started to realise it wasn’t that boring after all. “It strengthens my body flexibility and expands my circle of friends… And of course makes me have the desire to dress more beautifully every day even though I’m not going to classes!”

Ballroom dance does make people beautiful inside but also outside. Isn’t it?

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