Dancing in the Park

A teenager in yellow jeans shifted a little into a shadow of a dance step, furtively mimicking the handful of more exuberant men and women twirling and gesturing gracefully in the center of the clearing. A man in a suit sits on a bench, flipping through the music on his karaoke machine, filling the area between three large trees with a few bars at a time of music both grand and pop. The dancers are unconcerned, continuing their movements and tailoring them every minute or two to the new music.


This was just the beginning. This is what I came here, to Purple Bamboo Park, to see. This was my first day “off” in a week of interviews and facility tours across Beijing, two to three each day. Today I spent walking—over 8 miles all told—visiting places that people we interviewed mentioned as significant to their well-being. Time and again we heard that the “health dances in the park” were where someone got out to, socialized and exercised. So here I was, in this enormous park that is only the seventh largest in Beijing, looking for dance.

I had been wandering around for hours, watching joggers wind through the bamboo groves, parents and children and elders using the public cardio and self-massage equipment. I was actually on my way out, ready to give up, when I stumbled on this scene in a clearing, surrounded by benches and coat racks, with a few dancers and their audience.

A discordant blare broke the mad rhythm of the indecisive karaoke box.

There was another speaker on wheels in the clearing, louder, indicating they were ready to provide the music now. The style was older—chanting choirs and a vaguely military rhythm. The handful of pioneers dancing to the light of the setting sun became more synchronized in their movements. As they danced, a cluster of a dozen people approached the new music master with friendly greetings, then fanned out to join the dancing. (Adding more videos when I get around to editing them. I took a lot of video. Video is slow.)

As twilight set in I was now swaying on the edges of a sizable group of thirty or so people, arrayed roughly in a grid, stepping and swaying and gesturing in unison. Sometimes they would rearrange, and the men and women would trade-off in some pre-determined pattern. Another few dozen people were on the outskirts like me, swaying and stretching and bouncing in a more partial mode of participation. The ages now ranged from 16 to 60.

I noticed I could hear other music now. I skirted the group and wound my way to the next clear spot—a wide plaza by one of the park gates. There fifty or so women with bright red pom-poms and fans did their own choreographed thing. As I watched them someone set up another karaoke machine on the bench on the other side of the widening path from me, and before I knew it there were 3-4 couples doing competition-level ballroom dancing in suits and dresses, with a fast-gathering circle of fans. Just beyond them in the gathering gloom, over the heads of men clustered around dimly lit games of mahjong, was yet another dance area in a wooded courtyard, filled with several dozen couples swaying.

A gregarious autodidact approached me, eager to practice his English. He was in his mid fifties, all smiles over a gray Mao jacket. I asked him if this was a typical turnout for a Tuesday night in the park. He asserted that this was typical every night it didn’t rain—even in the winter people dance in coats. “The everyday people, you see, the workers, not the cadres, they can’t afford to go to fancy cinemas, things like that. This is real entertainment. And it’s free! Free for everyone. Every night.” (It’s amazing how just a few years variation in age between the cohorts in their 40s, 50s, and 60s makes all the difference in whether someone speaks the language of the cultural revolution with caution, irony, sincerity, or nostalgia. After a while the conversation turned to wages, housing, family, and the comparative necessities of a good life in the US and China.)

When I lived in China as a child, I dimly remember the early mornings in the park filled with people practicing tai chi in large groups; marching and dancing with my pre-school classmates in our yellow Transformers jumpsuits. And I’ve read Judith Farquar’s extensive and nuanced analyses of the park as a site of civic life, biopolitics, and embodied nationalism. But dim memories and scholarly imagining didn’t quite prepare me for the scale, the rigor, the total experience of hundreds of people gathering nightly to dance in public.

And in the back of my head, some distance away from my observe-describe [and participate just a little] ethnographer’s brain, I kept wondering,

“WHY CAN’T WE DO THIS BACK HOME?”

People dance a little at street fairs, at concerts, they pay to dance in clubs, in gyms. There are flash mobs and performance artists and the self-consciously alternative Burning Man frequenters. But why can’t teenagers and elders dance in any park, any time?

What would it take to get anybody to dance together as if nobody was looking, for free, in public, any night of the week?

Seriously. Any ideas?

Thistle Fairy and the Seven Jewels

The re-telling below is a Chinese fairy tale I loved when I was a child, filtered through my California lens of Steinbeck, and my transcendentalist lens via Thoreau. More on that after the story. The divergent palates of the Diablo Hills, and the steep Chinese landscapes that the original story canvases inspired this story. I was driving across the Dumbarton Bridge at dawn.  You know how hard it is to behold something that beautiful while driving? So I backed into describing from my observations.  And that lead to this. Enjoy.

Thistle Fairy and the Seven Jewels

It was very dark.  Only a few isolated cones of brightness punctuated the black. Slowly, edges started creeping into the world.  Things remembered their shapes as the night faded.  The world saw itself for the first time since yesterday, and it was all painted in shades of gray.

Sunrise Fairy stretched languorously in her resting place behind the gray hills.  Another morning, another long journey across the world returning color to all the shapes and beings. Why couldn’t everything remember its own color overnight? Why did she always have to make the rounds, whispering and tapping with her kit of colored stones?  Surely someone could share the load a bit. She needed help, she realized.  Her job required wonder, and she was all out of it.

She cast about, and she smelled, and then saw a tangle of jasmine filling out a hedge.

“Jasmine Fairy,” she said, “do you remember the colors of things in the world?”

Dainty Jasmine Fairy quivered fragrantly, but remained silent.

Sunrise Fairy went then to Crane, perching in the marsh on one long leg.  “Crane, you are very tall and fly very fast, do you remember the colors of the world? Would you help me remind things of their colors?”

Crane blinked slowly, and returned his head to its resting place beneath his wing.

Irritated, Sunrise Fairy went to Black Oak. One look at his gnarled silhouette, and she didn’t even bother asking.

As she stomped away, something stung her leg, just a little.  She looked down.

“I’m sorry, I was just trying to get your attention.  I remember the colors of things in the world. I can help get things going.”

Sunrise Fairy regarded the squat little weed fairy at her feet, barely reaching her knee, a tangle of jagged edges with a mop of deceptively soft-looking pale fur atop her head.  “What are the seven true colors?” she demanded.

“Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet,” Thistle fairy responded, without missing a beat.

“What is the difference between inspecting and beholding?” Sunrise Fairy persisted.

“Beholding is to see with awe. And, um… seeing not only what is but also what could be?”

“Alright, Thistle Fairy.  I think I can trust you with my jewels.  But remember, they must be given without reservation, in awe, or they won’t work right. Got it?”

“Got it,” Thistle Fairy answered solemnly.  Sunrise Fairy turned away, enjoying the luxury of focusing on just one bright tile mosaic, rather than the whole world.

Thistle Fairy hefted the bag reverently. She turned and trotted down the hill, keeping her eyes open.  Wonder can come from anywhere, she reminded herself.

She was so busy looking about that she didn’t see a big hunk of granite in her path until she tripped on it. She tumbled head over heels, and found herself staring up at the sky.  Then she saw it–there above her in the sky where it met the hills.  It wasn’t a color.  It wanted to be a color. She reached into the bad and pulled out the first stone, a bright fiery red.  She threw it up into the sky, and color blossomed.

It wasn’t exactly red.  It was more like mauve.  But it was beautiful, and not bad for a first try, Thistle Fairy told herself, smiling with awe.

She continued on down the hill, and soon spied a line of poppies just starting to open. “Orange!” she said aloud in her excitement. “Here, here, take the orange stone,” she offered the poppies.

“Oh no,” said the poppies, opening hastily in the growing light. “We’re already quite orange, we remember just fine. You should give that orange to someone else.”

Just then she saw a garter snake twist from behind a hunk of serpentine.  The black and gray stripes from his head to his tail looked terribly plain.  She offered him the orange jewel.  He flicked his tail amicably, and when she had tossed it to him, he curled his long narrow body around it.  The dull spots between his dark stripes became a brilliant orange.  The scales gleamed.  He hissed his thanks, and slithered away.

Thistle Fairy then offered the serpentine the green jewel. [no thank you,] the rock rumbled. [i do green rock well enough on my own. you should give that to someone else.]

She continued on until she came to a great stand of wild mustard alongside a winding black road.  She scrutinized the riot of tiny blossoms. She liked them–they were overgrown and rambunctious, like her. She offered them the yellow stone.

“Oh, we’re already quite yellow!  See? Fit for a painting. You should give that to someone else,” the wild mustard assured her.

Thistle Fairy perched at the edge of the road.  It smelled of tar, fresh and black.  A shimmering line ran down it in ghostly silver.  She wondered where the road went.  She had never been this far away from her patches of thistles in the hills.  On a whim, she rolled the yellow stone down the line.  It became a shockingly gold ribbon, winding with the road around the hills.  Thistle fairy smiled, and followed it.

Soon she found herself in the marshes. Well, above the marshes! Her road had become a bridge, her shining yellow line stretching across the whole bay. She looked down at the swamps, crisscrossed with low levees. She spied a frog singing under the bridge.  “Good morning! Would you like this green jewel?”

“Hehe, I’m already green sweetie. You oughta give that jewel to someone else,” the frog replied.

Thistle Fairy shrugged and gazed across the swamp, muddy and crusted with salt.  It didn’t look quite right.  In fact, it was downright ugly.  She threw the green stone out into the water–and it turned a beautiful jade color.

As she looked between the jade water and the mauve sky, she saw her home, those rolling hills, from a distance for the first time.  She knew that they would be greening soon, and later they would be gold and brown. Now they were just another shade of gray.  But she also knew she could change that this morning.  With all her might, she pitched the indigo stone to the hills.  There.  Now that was fit for a painting: mauve sky, indigo foothills, jade marsh, yellow striped road.

Caught up with the scene, she was nearly back to the hills before she noticed moving at all.  She stopped short against a plant that was almost as spiny as she was, but much, much taller.  Agave, she thought.  She looked in the Sunrise Fairy’s bag.  She drew the blue stone, and the agave, now a subtle blue, smiled quietly.

Thistle Fairy was heading up the hill when Sunrise Fairy caught up with her.  “How are you doing? I can take over soon, I feel so much better! What do you have left there?”

“Just violet,” said Thistle Fairy, holding up the stone.  “I just haven’t seen anything that needed to be violet.”

“Why don’t you keep that one for yourself?”

California Purple Thistle

Photo: Flickr CC/blueturbanphoto

Thistle Fairy shrugged bashfully, and stared at the ground around her.  The she saw the most familiar thing in her world.  “You know, I would rather give it to these Thistles.  After all, we have the same name.” She tossed the stone down into the patch of thistles, and their pale choking blossoms became a stunning violet.  Thistle Fairy’s own shock of fluff reflected them.

Sunrise Fairy nodded. “It suits you both.  Thank you for helping me this morning.  You payed close attention, and colored the world in a good light.  I hope all little children and seedlings can grow to be a little more like you.”

And as the Sunrise Fairy sped off, coloring the rest of the world as the sun rose, and everything else regained color for another day.

THE END

The original story centered on Rainbow Fairy and Morning Glory Fairy, with very blatant moral lessons: modesty, generosity, piety, and intelligence.  I think I kept most of those, with the addition of mindfulness, spunkiness, and renewal.  And the violet transformation was in the original: there is absolutely nothing autobiographical about the purple hair.  Really.

So, why Steinbeck and Thoreau?

Steinbeck taught me to see California.  When I travel I bring a section of East of Eden with me. It’s near the beginning:  the hills, the droughts, the rivers and their floodplains, the rhythm of the brown hills and the green hills across the years and across the decades.  I attribute the fact that I identify as a Californian to Steinbeck, for although I was born and partially raised around the Puget Sound, no writer from that area has instilled such a vivid and nostalgia-inducing picture in my mind of Washington, or taught me to truly see the land anew. (With the possible exception of Tom Robbins, and the house consumed by blackberry brambles.) I also love Steinbeck’s voice: I learned a lot from the solemn realism of his writing, and the painful empathy his era wrought in him.

Thoreau is another matter, not California related.  From him I get sheer transcendental awe.  I can’t really describe how important a force this is in my life.  To behold nature, to fully participate in perceiving the natural world, is to be more conscious; in other words, to see more perfectly.

*embarassingly, I had to change the title and character of this story when I realized my botanical confusion between thistles and nettles.  Thistles are the pretty ones. Drat.