Chinatown seniors follow cowboys steps
Posted Nov 5 2007
No, it is not a continuation of an early-morning rave.
Since July, the popular neighborhood center has been offering beginning line dance classes Saturday mornings, where more than 125 — mostly Chinese-American seniors — have enrolled.
"Line dancing is very good," said instructor Alice Lo, decked out in a turquoise velour shirt, blue jeans and spiffy red and black dance shoes. "You don't need a partner. You don't have to dress up. It's good exercise."
Densely populated areas such as Chinatown are in need of recreational programs like this. Many families live in cramped quarters, often having to share precious space. Even the streets and restaurants often are overcrowded.
The rec center, until recent years, was seen as a place for children and youth to play. But in the last three years, center director Gilbert Gong has added more programs for older adults — suchas the line dancing classes.
"It was brought up out of the need for activities for mature adults who were sitting at home at night, watching TV and falling asleep in front of it," said Gong, who received the city's Employee of the Year award last December.
Lo, who is in her 50s, promptly begins the Saturday class at 9 a.m. More and more students trickle in soon after she demonstrates the lindy shuffle, then the twist, until the gym is packed.
"Twist to the left, " she instructs through her headset in English, punctuated with occasional phrases in Cantonese. "One, two, three, four, twist to the right!"
Line dancing is often associated with country music. But Lo, who is originally from Hong Kong and lives in Castro Valley, teaches steps borrowed from the hustle, cha-cha, rumba, waltz, swing and twist, among others — and uses all genres of music. Students do the same moves in rows or lines.
Lo says line dancing has become more popular among baby boomers, who are retired or close to retirement. They have more time on their hands, may not have a background in dance and are just looking for exercise.
Some of Lo's students struggle to keep up, but most are able to follow, each in their own style. Some drift out across the gym floor and take up more space, while others seem to rotate around an imaginary spot under their feet.
All seem to enjoy the class, as seen by the chit-chat and laughter during a break.Though it's a crisp Saturday morning in late-October, dancers start peeling off their jackets as they get into the groove and work up a sweat.
"I think we really have fun and the music is good," said Liza Tsang, 62, who lives in Chinatown, adding that Lo is a good teacher.
Tsang said she has many friends who also have enrolled in the class.
As part of the day, after the class, they also grab some dim sum — a popular Cantonese-style meal of small dishes, Tsang said. Class ends at 11 a.m. which is when dim sum restaurants typically begin to get crowded.
"The goal of my class is that I would like more opportunities for the community to get out of the house, exercise, meet friends and socialize," Lo said. She began taking dance classes at Chabot College in Hayward, where she works as an assistant to the dean, about seven years ago. She has no formal training in dance. Lo also has taught an intermediate dance class Monday evenings at Lincoln for the past 21/2 years.
Line dancing seems to be catching on among Chinese-American populations across the Bay Area.
In Cupertino, Sue Hsu and Kathy Chang, Chinese Americans in their 40s, got their start at a senior center and have been teaching their own classes since summer — to primarily first-generation Chinese- and Taiwanese-American women in the South Bay.
Kico Lin founded the California Line Dance Association of America in San Jose in 2004.
At the rec center in Oakland, people from all over the Bay Area — Fremont, San Leandro, Hercules — take Lo's free class. And it's not just women: About 20 men are enrolled, too.
Jane Chew, who lives in Hercules, says it's the only way to get her husband to exercise.
"I like it myself because (I can) exercise," said Chew, adding that she prefers recreational dance to going to a gym.
Gong said he knows other line dancing classes — at the West Oakland Senior Center, for example — are also very popular. Ballroom dancing, tai chi and the ubiquitous pick-up basketball game are all popular programs offered at the rec center.
Another high-impact spot for the Chinese elder community was the Lake Merritt BART station plaza, located in what is known to some as "residential Chinatown." The area is home to a large Chinese-American population and is adjacent to commercial Chinatown.
Since BART began renovating the building and plaza last fall — fencing off the area where local seniors have been practicing tai chi, qi gong and other forms of exercise for the past few decades — many have moved over to Madison Square Park.
In fact, many of the line dancers at Lincoln Recreation Center say they exercise in Madison Square Park, then trot over to the line-dancing class Saturday mornings.
"It's offering more opportunity for folks to stay physically active," Gong said. "Right behind it is providing and environment where folks can socialize as well."
Some participants say the class gives them peace of mind.
Yong Qin Yuan, 61, is one of the more exuberant students of Lo's. She literally has a bounce in her step as she follows Lo's dance instructions.
When Yuan first immigrated from Guizhou Province in China to Oakland's Chinatown this summer, she said she often felt sad and missed home. She often cried during her first month living here, she said.
"When I first got here, I missed home," Yuan, who moved to Oakland to be closer to her daughter and grandchild, said in Mandarin. "I missed my friends."
Now she's found a different home here in Chinatown.
"Right now, I don't think about home (Guizhou)," she said about how she feels when she's a part of the dance class. "When I sit at home, I feel old. When I come here, I feel young. When I am here, I am very happy."
Lincoln Square Recreation Center is located 250 10th St. in Oakland's Chinatown. Beginning line dance is offered from 9 to 11 a.m. Saturdays; intermediate class (sponsored by the Chinese American Citizens Alliance) is 7 to 9 p.m. Mondays. Contact the center at 510-238-7738.
MediaNews staff writer Lisa Fernandez contributed to this report. Contact Momo Chang at email@example.com or 510-208-6483.