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Too young for tai chi? Chinese Americans try line dancing

Kit Cheung's dancers use scoots, shuffles and Montana kicks to any sort of music. 'If it has a beat, we'll dance to it,' he says.

October 26, 2012|By Frank Shyong, Los Angeles Times
  • Kit Cheung leads members of the Dynamic Line Dance group, which meets in a parking garage at the Monterey Park library.
Kit Cheung leads members of the Dynamic Line Dance group, which meets in… (Michael Robinson Chavez…)

The dancers in Monterey Park's Barnes Park favor cloth slippers over cowboy boots, but there's no mistaking the genre.

Country-western line dancing — minus the country and the western — has caught on with Asian Americans in recent years, particularly with women of Chinese descent looking for an early morning alternative to tai chi.

Parks, community centers and senior citizens homes offer lessons throughout the San Gabriel Valley, and the California Line Dance Assn. of America, a Chinese American group based in Northern California, has more than 3,000 members. The Monterey Park group meets at 7:30 a.m. every day in the parking lot of a library adjacent to Barnes Park, where people doing tai chi occupy most of the grassy public spaces.

"Tai chi, that's for old people," instructor and founder Kit Cheung said. "I didn't like that. Line dancing with friends — it helps you feel younger. You make friends and go dancing together."

Cheung's dancers use the traditional scoots, shuffles and Montana kicks, but their playlists don't favor any particular genre of music. There are routines for Lady Gaga pop anthems, swaggering tangos, hip-hop tunes and the whip-crack beat of Michael Jackson's "Thriller."

"If it has a beat, we'll dance to it," Cheung said.

Cheung, her husband, William, and 10 friends began dancing together about four years ago, copying steps from grainy YouTube videos and eventually creating their own. Now her group has 70 members and some compete in informal competitions under the name Dynamic Line Dance. Cheung said there are several other groups in the area.

The group usually begins practice with a more traditional Chinese song — a wailing erhu framing a singsong vocal melody. But when Michael Buble starts to croon, their pace quickens. Dancers turn, kick and clap, and, after each routine, engage in a little self-conscious laughter.

Tai chi groups still dominate much of the public space around Barnes Park, but Cheung's line-dancing group has more members than any of them. Cheung said it attracts people who are seeking qing kuai, which means a light happiness, she said.

For many in the group, it began with a love of dancing and lack of partners. Many of the women in the group were ballroom dancing enthusiasts who found the dance floor bare of male partners.

Kico Lin, who helped found the California Line Dance Assn. of America, agrees. Most of the women in Lin's association are in their 40s and 50s, Lin said. Their sons and daughters have left home and their husbands work long hours. Line dancing offers a chance to hit the dance floor even if there are no available partners. Cheung and Lin said their groups sometimes organize dance parties and dinners for members to socialize.

"It's not just about line dancing," Lin said. "It's about being in a group."

Dynamic Line Dance's practice usually ends about 9:30 a.m. with a round of applause. Several women clustered and chatted about dance moves and weight loss, daubing sweat with towels. A few burst into song.

They sang half-learned lyrics from the chorus of Buddy Holly and the Crickets' "It's So Easy," carelessly dropping a few words.

"It's so … it's so … fall in love."

The rest of the song dissolved in giggles as the women stepped lightly to their cars.

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