Thursday, July 27, 2017

Amateur hour: Mandalay's thriving dance community

 Plenty of performers contend for the crowd’s adulation during the annual Chinese New Year festivities in Mandalay. Troupes of professional dancers visited from China to display their considerable skills, while surprisingly well-choreographed dancing schoolchildren won the favour of proud family members.

Amateur dancers perform for Chinese New Year celebrations in Mandalay. Photo: Jeremy MullinsAmateur dancers perform for Chinese New Year celebrations in Mandalay. Photo: Jeremy Mullins

But the most sustained applause of the evening followed a performance by the Yunnan Hall Gymnasium Association – the official title of an all-star group of Mandalay’s many dancing aunties.

The aunties – mostly middle-aged and senior women who meet regularly to dance for as much as two hours a day – often perform for local events such as weddings and business openings in the city’s Chinese community. Up to 100 aunties at once will perform popular Chinese and Southeast Asian dances that resemble Western line-dancing.

They are strictly amateurs, with rich work and family lives, coming together to share their common interests. While their nieces and nephews might be inclined to do a bit of eye-rolling when their elders show off their moves, the dancers themselves clearly relish the chance to take to the stage, and they find no lack of community support.

Held at Yunnan Hall, the annual celebration on the first full moon following the Chinese New Year is perhaps the Mandalay Chinese community’s biggest event. Organisers cancelled last year’s festivities due to a perceived rise in tensions between the Chinese and Bamar communities in Mandalay, but earlier this month they decided to go ahead. And for the best event of the evening, they presented the Yunnan Hall Gymnasium Association’s top six dancers – chosen from the hundreds who make up about 10 local practice groups – in Xinjiang-inspired dance and costume.

Typically, the aunties practice in the early morning, mostly for exercise, said team leader Yang Yon Qing. Groups congregate in Mandalay’s parks and halls every morning to practice modern dance, from simple styles to more complex cha cha and tango footwork. Festival performances are an extension of their regular meetings, she said.

“We have a different style of dance when we exercise than what you see on the stage,” she said. When a performance date draws near, they focus their practice on traditional dance. While any auntie may participate in most wedding and store-opening performances, only the best make the cut for the annual New Year celebrations.

This year’s six were chosen by the leader of the Yunnan Hall Gymnasium Association, who in turn was selected by the Mandalay Yunnan Chinese Association. The Gymnasium Association has been running since 1996, and its predecessor groups stretch back even further.

Learning from instructional DVDs and periodic lessons from visiting professionals, the dancers began piecing together and perfecting their performance a month before the big event. “We like to entertain people and be healthy, but dancing is also our personal hobby,” said Yang Yon Qing.

Their enthusiasm is evident, as is their age – the majority of dancers are in their fifties or older. Theories about for why this is. One young spectator suggested that the 6am practice sessions preclude the involvement of modern late-sleeping youth, while another said younger dancers preferred hip-hop over old-fashioned dance. Yang Yon Qing reckons younger women have their hands full with work and family duties.

“I’m not worried about a lack of interest in dancing,” she said. “As women get older and their children grow up, they like to join our group.”

The six aunties who performed for Chinese New Years are a particularly dedicated bunch, but many meet every morning simply for the exercise and camaraderie. One group on 62nd Street has found a particularly scenic park for the purpose: It’s shaded by trees with a fetching temple backdrop. It’s also convenient. Some of the aunties’ children attend a nearby school, while a local market offers a place to purchase the day’s necessities.

Every morning before Mandalay begins its daily bustling, dozens of members of the 62nd Street group meet up to move in time to music that wails from speakers set up on the sidewalk. Many have the dances down pat, while others do their best to mimic their neighbours. The mood is light-hearted and casual.

One member of the group, Daw Kyaw Sho May, said that while Chinese aunties predominate, the group is open to any person who wants fun and exercise. Some Bamar and Indian women participate, and even a few uncles have taken part in the aerobic exercises, though they seldom brave the dancing.

In contrast to the Yunnan Hall Gymnasium group, the 62nd Street dancers generally do not accept invitations to appear at events, unless it is a wedding of a dancer’s family member or a request from the city’s Chinese associations.

“We’re here for exercise,” she said. “We have busy lives, and agreeing to perform takes time to get ready and to make costumes.”

Daw Kyaw Sho May said she hopes more people join the dancing aunties, as it is beneficial for health and, most importantly, quite fun.