RUSTY'S TRIP TO CHINA
YOU NEVER KNOW WHERE YOUR
DANCING SHOES WILL TAKE YOU!
MY PERSONAL TAP DANCE CULTURAL EXCHANGE
written April 8th 2011, by Rusty Frank
In a recent issue of the International Tap Association newsletter, I was fascinated by a piece written by Chinese tapper, Jiefang Chen. I immediately recognized his name, as he had bought quite a few of my "Tapping With The Masters" instructional DVDs. I was deeply moved and intrigued by the content of this article - how Jiefang was using my Leonard Reed Shim Sham Shimmy DVDs to teach his students the tap basics and getting them dancing within a matter of months. I was compelled by his description of the uphill battle he faced for two reasons: The common perception in China that tap dancing is Irish (as a result of a tour of the show Riverdance), and how people in China are reluctant to "pay" for knowledge, including dance classes.
In December 2010, I wrote a short email to Jiefang: "I wanted to say thank you for forwarding your wonderful and thoughtful article on American Tap in China. I was fascinated and thoroughly impressed with what you are doing. If I can be of any help in the future, please let me know. I would love to meet you one day. All the very best, Rusty Frank."
I was not prepared for his reply that arrived the next day, for it included a short clip of him and his adult students doing the Shim Sham Shimmy (if you missed it, you can see it here on You Tube). Within moments I found myself in a puddle of tears - this clip just simply grabbed at my heartstrings, and, from that moment on, wouldn't let go.
With Jiefang and his students
From what I knew about China (which was admittedly very little) there would be scarce funding for foreign teachers. I had been hoarding my frequent flyer miles for a decade with the idea of doing something special one day, and it looked like I had found that something VERY special. I offered to Jiefang that I would fly myself over, waive my fee, and do some teaching in order to help ignite their fledgling tap dance scene.
Jiefang responded, "How's March?"
The ball got rolling at a frenetic speed, and before I knew it, I was on a plane heading for Shanghai on my own personal cultural exchange.
MEET JIEFANG CHEN
CHINA'S TAP TIGER
When you combine passion with drive, what you are met with is a force beyond reckoning, and if this were a person, he would be named Jiefang Chen.
This dapper and sturdy 72-year old Shanghai resident is a tap fanatic on a mission - to create an American Tap Dance Teacher Certification program in China. I was extremely skeptical about this agenda prior to arriving in China and had had some nervous discussions back home about establishing a curriculum for this Chinese certification program. It just seemed that tap needed to be a bit of a free spirit. But after spending two weeks with Jiefang and meeting with tap instructors from across China, I am fully convinced that his vision is one critical for the Chinese culture. All the young talent coming up across that huge nation will be aided by the formal recognition of the Teacher's Certificate in getting employment, and thereby enabled to pass on the art form.
Beijing Tap Teachers and Rusty jump for joy
The dancers with whom I spoke reckoned there were about 1,000 tap dancers in China, but they felt, with a little push, this number could grow exponentially.
During my short stay, I taught and performed with dancers on six different occasions, and, without exception, they were thrilled to meet and work with an American tap dancer. They were keen students of all levels and could pick up steps and rhythms quickly. As there was a strong language barrier, I was teaching with movement and rhythm.
One of my favorite students, and the only child, this lovely six-year old girl brought me flowers and loads of hugs! At one point she came running over to me with her parents' iPhone and showed a clip of me dancing, pointing to me then the video,
as though saying, "See! That's you!"
Jiefang's goal is to get the ball rolling and pass it all on to the younger generation. "I am an old man," he says repeatedly. Yes, well this "old man" has the tenacity and strength of a tiger. Given half a chance he'll reach his goal.
SOME SOCIAL TIME, TOO, WITH "SHANGHAI SWINGS"
(BUT, OF COURSE!)
As much as I love teaching, and you all know I do, I also found time to do some nice sightseeing around Shanghai, meet up with the local Lindy Hop swing dance scene, and take a couple side trips.
The first week was focused heavily teaching, I had to squeeze in my wanderings in between classes. I spent a lovely morning walking through a huge local park and took in the scenes, including: kite flying, dancing - both line dancing, and tango!, games, people resting with their families, etc.
Some of the visiting tap dancers from Beijing took me to the famous Bund where we took in the sights of the old and the new Shanghai and ended with a tap jam at The House of Blues & Jazz.
On The Bund
I took a fascinating tour on the history of Jews in Shanghai where I got to see the Ghetto in which Ron Campbell's mother-in-law was born and raised after her family escaped the Nazi's. (Shanghai was the last place on earth, literally, where Jews could find refuge at that time. Though the conditions were harsh, they survived.)
In The Jewish Ghetto of Shanghai of WWII era
My hosts, Jiefang and his wife Betty, took me for an overnight trip to Hangzhou ("Heaven is above, and Hangzhou and Suzhou are below" - made it to Suzhou later)
Shanghai Swings welcomed me famously. One of the "fearless leaders," Orchid Bae, sent out the following email:
"Dear all, Rusty will be in town from Mar. 25 to April 6. To the core group and specially the group of "ladies who lunch", Shanghai Swings is counting on you to uphold our reputation as one of the most welcoming swing scenes in Asia. :-) Yes, swing scenes around the world are generally friendly and open, but I like to believe we are one of the best or at least trying to be one! Orchid"
With Shanghai Swing ladies, center Orchid & Jacqueline, and three visiting German Lindy Hoppers
And, boy, oh, boy, did they answer the call! They made sure I had plenty to do in my free time. Jacqueline gave me two excellent walking tours, I had a lovely dinner with Ann, Akiko (the other Akiko), Jacqueline, and a dancer from Korea; I was hosted for THREE days in Suzhou by Loreto and Stu; and again at The House of Blues & Jazz in Shanghai with Shanghai Swings gang and other foreign visitors from Germany on my final night. The big joy was that there was a new band being featured at the club (they are on a three-month rotation) from New York. And the guitarist was Peter Davis, whose music I've long had in my iPod - "Goin' To Lindy Land."
FLYING HOME IN CLASS WITH A BIG SURPRISE
INAUGURAL SHANGHAI-L.A. FLIGHT
My trip concluded with a huge surprise. Turned out I was on the VERY first ever U.S. commercial airplane to fly direct from Shanghai to Los Angeles. Ever. There was a big ceremony with speeches and ribbon cutting, plus gifts of ebony and silver plated chopsticks for all the passengers. Pretty nifty!
I had an amazing time. I was greeted over and over again with the greatest of warmth and enthusiasm, treated royally, and fed to the bursting point. I have memories to last a lifetime.
I definitely attained my goal in helping spark a few tap dance lights in China. And, I thrilled in passing on the work of my teachers & friends (Louis DaPron & Miriam Nelson) as well as a couple routines of my own.
When I think of my trip, it reveals itself like the montage ending of a happy movie - the smiling faces of all the students, teachers, and new friends I met on this journey.
I have posted 200 of the 1,212 photos I took on the trip both on Facebook and our website. The Facebook scrapbook is more organized in order of my trip... so, if you can look there, I'd recommend it. Otherwise, enjoy the random order on the website.