“The fusion of 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 four captains on Street Dance of China Season 4 — to introduce a duet between Chinese choreographer Ma Xiaolong and French hip hop dancer Zyko. While his team’s three-minute dance may have inspired it, it also perfectly describes the theme of the latest season of the popular street chance variety show, created by Chinese streaming site Youku.
At a time when global geopolitics is rife with conflict and division, Street Dance of China strived to create cross-cultural friendships in the most unlikely of ways — dance. This may sound like the plot from a cheesy movie from the 1980s, but when SDC opened its fourth season earlier this year (it first kicked off in 2018), the show debuted with a different twist — international dancers.
The latest season of SDC invited top dancers from all over 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 battle for peace,” as the recent season’s slogan states.
While the show carried on previous concepts like 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 body language.
Many of the foreign participants have said that their motivation for joining the show came from the fact that it was a rare opportunity to bring together such a legendary group of international dancers 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 participants said they grew up watching ACKY’s videos.
However, amid the exciting portfolio of performances, just as powerfully prominent in the fourth season was the cultural exchange between national and international dancers that created a unique fusion of Chinese street dance.
Many Chinese participants were excited by the prospect of dancing with international dancers and decided to incorporate Chinese influences into their choreography, a style referred to on the show as Zhongguo Feng (which translates as ‘Chinese style’). Zhongguo Feng is a genre of Chinese music that emerged in the early 2000s, which fuses traditional Chinese musical styles with modern musical trends in its instrumental composition.
One standout example was Ma Xiaolong’s solo performance “Chess” in the qualifying rounds, which centered on a Chinese chess game with tai chi-inspired movements. Participant Gai Gai described the performance as “[Ma] infused culture into his choreography,” and it was this uniquely Chinese flavor that piqued the interest of many foreign dancers for whom it was their first time witnessing any Chinese dance.
For instance, France’s Rochka said he’d never seen Chinese-style dance before coming to the SDC stage. “That is my first time to really be in the [sic] Chinese culture, and I enjoyed that so much.”
Many contestants this season chose to employ Zhongguo Feng themes in their performances, often with storylines highlighting the collaboration between Chinese and non-Chinese dancers.
“A Bite of China” from Captain Lay Zhang’s team, for instance, was choreographed by Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese dancers. The storyline centered on Chinese dancers Huang Xiao and Bboy George as ‘waiters’ introducing Chinese food to international teammates MT-POP, KENKEN, and Bunta.
MT-POP reflected on this, saying, “This time, it’s not only about dance … They teach me some things about Chinese culture.”
And who knew that the popping style of dance that originated in California in the 1960s would integrate so seamlessly with Chinese dance?
Watching this fusion created something of a meta experience as we saw cultural exchange happening off-stage and on-stage.
We witnessed duets with Japanese popper ACKY playing a ‘sweeping monk’ alongside his Chinese’ disciple’ Ma; French hip hop dancer Zyko portrayed a student of the Chinese guqin; while Swiss popper Poppin’C explored Chinese movements through classical Italian aria “Lascia Ch’io Pianga.”
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 the captain of his team Han Geng at the conclusion of the show.
Chinese dancer Bboy Keven, on the other hand, brought his teammates to try Sichuan hot pot for the first time. “The purpose of eating this is to explain to Boris and KENKEN the story about the Three Kingdoms in ancient China while eating hot pot,” he explained.
At the dinner table, Keven and his other Chinese teammates used their bowls and vegetables to represent the horses in the myth and wooden skewers as arrows from the rivals. Japanese choreographer KENKEN reflected, “I’m happy to have such a good chance to learn something about Chinese culture.”
Cultural exchange through food also occurred between the captains and dancers. In one episode of Let’s Chat, a more casual spinoff of Street Dance of China, Poppin’C joined the team captains to eat hot pot and brought tiramisu in exchange. “I want to share this with you because before, back in the day, I shared this with my family. It was made by my grandfather and grandmother,” he said.
For many international participants, SDC was like a second home, or family, away from home.
Outside of dance, the show also featured a talent show in episode seven, when Rochka brought his own French song to the stage, and captain Henry Lau sang Teresa Teng’s “The Moon Represents My Heart” with his team, featuring solos in Chinese by Rochka and Boris.
While participants were brought to the show for dance, it seems they’ve emerged with more than that. Rochka reflected on the friendships he cultivated during the show, saying, “Outside of practice, sometimes we have dinner together … This is priceless, you know, after work, we are together, and having food, laughing, talking about the day. This is really nice … I want to have more memories like this.”
Evidently, this time around, SDC felt less like a competition and more like a global gathering.
“My purpose of being here this time is to share my vigor and courage … to communicate with others through the soul of dance. That, to me, is the most important part,” 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 was passed 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. While this division remains, the show is a reminder of the power of unity; as French dancers learned how to play the guqin, Chinese dancers tasted tiramisu from a Swiss popper, and Japanese choreographers learned about 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
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