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My great-great-grandfather was very nervous, even though he had done it thousands of times.
He and his teammates held their breath in total darkness…waiting for the music. At the age of 101, he knew it was likely his last chance to compete in a dancing contest.
The drums kicked in and, slowly but surely, he started the moves of Gaoshan -- a folk dance unique to my part of China.
The music was serene... the motion was graceful.... and everything was so harmonious.
And then, everything changed!
The tempo sped up. The dancers started shaking their hips. It was completely unexpected but yes, they were dancing modern disco.
I was delighted, but not everyone liked it. Some argued that the traditional dance was compromised by the inclusion of Western fluff.
So I asked Angong, “Why not just do a typical Gaoshan dance?”
“Are you kidding me, sweetheart?” he replied. “Where would we be without some clashes and conflicts?”
That was Angong’s gut reaction, but what he implied set me thinking. “Where would we be without some clashes and conflicts?”
Looking back on the life of my great-great-grandfather, it was a journey marked by clashes every step of the way.
When he was a teenager, China’s door was busted wide open. He cut off his ponytail following the end of Qing---China’s last feudal Dynasty. During the day, cars ran alongside rickshaws. At night, jazz clashed with Chinese opera. Dancing was a luxury reserved for the rich and privileged.
When the People’s Republic was founded in 1949, Angong danced on the streets with joy. After years of unrest, he felt a sense of belonging and new possibilities. That was the moment he knew he wanted to be an artist.
After the Cultural Revolution, Angong witnessed China’s reform and opening-up. Both Deng Lijun of Taiwan and the Carpenters of America were huge stars at the time. For the first time in years, Angong didn’t have to follow one set of doctrines or one form of dancing for that matter.
Angong’s personal journey mirrored the transformation of a nation, a transformation encapsulated in the life of a man who pursued artistic expression.
Please remember, Angong and his generations were born into a China that was struggling to keep at bay an outside world that threatened China’s self-perception and self-rule.
A century later, this is a different China, and fortunately, a China that has learned lessons history had to offer, and now it seeks to re-engage the west.
Angong was a man of his times, but he has always been open to new voices, new ideas, new dances. He adapted, changed and grew by learning from the world around him, both Chinese and Western.
By being open to each other, we can grow in unexpectedly beautiful ways, just like my Angong’s disco Gaoshan dance. Ladies and gentlemen, I implore you to join my great-great-grandfather and me as we dance with a spring in our step into that great unknown that will be our future.
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