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Parents fear dancing leads to taboo 'early love'
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Western ballroom waltz was introduced to China's primary and middle schools as an extracurricular course this fall semester to cultivate boys' and girls' social graces and improve their fitness as well.

But the ambitious plan by the State Education Ministry makes school kids somewhat embarrassed, and parents worried, fearing their children will fall in love early and neglect their studies once they begin dancing hand-in-hand.

Feng Bokai, of Beijing No. 2 Middle School, hesitates when asked to hold a girl's hand in a group dance, because Chinese traditional values dictate that teenage boys and girls should not get "too close."

"It's my first time dancing with girls, hand-in-hand," says the 16-year-old Feng. "Some of us adapted by holding the girls' sleeves or fingers instead of hands."

His partner Wang Anni, however, seems to enjoy it. "It's just a dance. A good exercise," she says, calling any fear of dance leading to "young love" ridiculous.

Wang notices boys are more nervous than girls, but they soon learn to concentrate on the dance. "It requires eye contact, body language and courtesy to communicate between dancers."

But Si Yu, a senior student, is very reluctant. "We wear sportswear every day. How can I dance a ballroom dance in shirts and leather shoes?" says Si, who prefers to listen to hip-hop and practice tae kwon do in his spare time.

In the city of Chengdu, capital city of Sichuan Province, Zeng Jia practices her waltz steps with others in the school's basement in order to avoid the stares of curious classmates at the Chengdu Experimental Middle School.

Zeng, invited by her partner, blushes as their hands connect. "It's your turn to spin," the boy reminds her in a low voice, and she hastily changes steps to follow the rhythm. A group of four students changes partners at intervals over the next five minutes.

"Waltz is more difficult for girls, as we have to make various gestures while keeping constant eye contact with our partners," says Zeng, admitting she now loves it.

The next week, to a Viennese waltz, Zeng and her 499 peers will sashay across the concrete playground of the school, with girls in skirts, boys in white shirts, black trousers and sleek bow ties.

Zeng notices most students, including herself, are swamped with homework and seldom play after school. Even at school, "PE classes are often canceled to make time for study," she says. So for her and her peers, "group dance is great fun and a good way to wind down."

The dance program was introduced after a survey of students found that 72.3 percent enjoy dancing, and 75 percent prefer boys and girls dancing together.

But many doubt that many schools will implement the dance programs given the exam-oriented education system.

Yang Guiren, an expert in art and physical education at the State Education Ministry, says dancing was introduced amid worries about increasing child obesity and a lack of physical exercise. It is intended to enrich PE lessons and improve physical fitness.

The government earlier this year called on all schools to ensure that children get at least an hour of exercise each day.

A nationwide survey last year showed the health of China's youngsters had declined steadily over the past two decades, and one in five boys in cities was clinically overweight, due to a poor diet and lack of exercise.

Besides helping to keep students fit, Yang says the group dances can cultivate "aesthetic tastes" and social graces among children."The dance steps are not complicated, and when you focus your mind, it can be very enjoyable," says Wang, of the Beijing No. 2 Middle School, who was said to be a very quiet and timid girl. But after her teacher chose her to learn dance in advance of a nationwide promotion, she grew in confidence.

"Group dance teaches students how to get along, especially with the opposite sex," says Meng Yan, a dance teacher at the school.

Meng, who was commissioned by the ministry to choreograph dance routines for junior middle school students, is delighted to see students discussing the steps at practice. She hears them prompting each other with "your left, my right."

"Adolescents aged 12 to 15 are rebellious, and they need guidance on how to communicate with the world," says Meng. "Children of this age want to communicate with the opposite sex, but traditions often restrain them."

In recent years, zao lian - literally, "early love" - has become a major social issue in China, especially in big cities where teenagers mature early and have a more sophisticated view of the world.

Many parents who have only one child worry that teenage relationships will ruin the child's academic performance. But Yang, the education official, believes otherwise. "Young love will not blossom through dancing, nor will it die through lack of dancing."

Group dancing is not the cause of young love, says Meng. She is supported by parents and teachers who argue that the generation of China's only children needs group activities to nurture a sense of collaboration and teamwork.

Besides waltz, the "Campus Yangge," a dance incorporating Chinese traditional movements, will be introduced to junior middle schools this autumn.

The yangge dance originated 2,000 years ago in North China as a religious ritual to dispel evil, and became a recreational activity during harvest days and holidays. Meng, the choreographer, says ethnic characteristics should be gradually infused into school dances, and "simplified ethnic dances" are very popular with children. China has 55 ethnic minorities, with their own cultures, and Mongolian, Tibetan, Uygur and Yi ethnic dances are part of the national heritage.

The Ministry of Education will distribute textbooks and DVDs on the group dances to schools across the country. Local educational departments will train teachers, most of them PE teachers. "By watching videos and following textbooks, the dances can be learned quickly," says Yang, the educational official.

School authorities can choose dance types they deem appropriate. Students in the Tibet Autonomous Region, for instance, have begun tap dances with local characteristics.

"Apparently, waltz does not suit remote rural areas, where playgrounds are a rarity," says Meng. "Rural students can play basketball and other sports."

The Ministry of Education says group dance is only an alternative exercise, and will not replace the decades-old "radio exercises" - exercising to radio music - which generations of Chinese remember fondly despite criticism of its monotony.

"Through dancing, we want our children, and the nation, to be more lively, healthy and graceful," says Meng.

(Shanghai Daily November 12, 2007)

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