Tucked away in the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, located in the heart of our city’s Chinatown, approximately two dozen Chinese expats rekindle their pasts with their fellow countrymen twice a week. They do so via the once popular, but now obscure, pastime of
ballroom dancing, an activity more engrained in Chinese culture than one might realize.
To capture this sense of nostalgia and congregation, visual journalist and documentarian Jennifer Carpenter immersed herself in the Association as a member for the last year. The result was Generation Dance, an exhibit comprising of Carpenter’s photos intertwined with Chinese ballroom historical accounts, conveying a largely unknown past to non-Chinese, as well as an important lesson as to what today’s Chinatown dancers can teach us about our own catharsis and roots.
“I think the point of Generation Dance is kind of celebrating a space where this community, specifically for the elderly, can be just like a locus for a space to celebrate national identity,”
says Carpenter. “For the [senior] generation, dance is one of the safe spaces where individuality can really come out.”
Indeed, history shows that individuality has been in a constant state of flux for the ballroom dancers of China. After being introduced to citizens via Hong Kong’s ruling British in the early 20th century, ballroom dancing quickly found a home in the city’s nightlife, with the activity’s inherent socializing and joy spreading north to neighboring Shanghai in due time as well. With the rise of Mao’s China, any aspect of Western culture was shown a backseat to Cultural Revolution and civil war. Even among his fiery rhetoric, Mao was reported to still hold lavish ballroom dances for his ruling peers. But even amid trying times, ballroom dancing has remained a beacon of good for its participants.
“There’s this couple that met through ballroom dancing in college, got married, then during the Cultural Revolution they were split apart,” says Carpenter. “When they moved to the US to be with their kids later in life,
they rekindled their romance through dance and now they compete in competitions back in China.
So, to just watch this big circle of life during their generation through dance I find really cool.”
Following Mao’s death in 1976 and the implementation of the Era of Reform, ballroom once again became viable recreation to Chinese citizens, as historically significant to its patrons as it is enjoyable. What Generation Dance poignantly communicates is how the dancers have always been able to able to turn to the ballroom for release, comfort, and socializing en masse, a tradition that continues today.
“What I found really striking about this experience was all these elderly folks who live in Chinatown … they’re maybe the last generation that doesn’t enjoy a common language. But they all communicate through this really physical and creative way.
It was their common language and their way to communicate on multiple levels.
That’s what I was really inspired by, and why I started to take pictures.”
PHOTOGRAPHS BY JENNIFER CARPENTER
PRESENTED BY CPA & AARW
OPENS FRIDAY 6.15.12
1 NASSAU ST.