Zhou Enlai “was perfection in the waltz”, noted the American journalist Anna Louise Strong. Strong spent six months living in the bleak caves of Yanan with the communist leadership in 1946. The highlight of her week was the Saturday night programme of ballroom dancing.
Strong two-stepped with Mao’s deputy, Liu Shaoqi – “who danced with scientific precision” – and did the cha-cha with the head of the army, Zhu De – “dancing as if doing his famous Long March”. She very occasionally partnered Mao himself. “He kept the friendliest contact with the music, yet never submitted,” Strong recalled, “Some people have said he had no sense of rhythm.”
More than 60 years later and ballroom dancing is still going strong in China, even if Strong’s restrained style of criticism would prove too tepid for the judges on Dance Show.
The Chinese version of British hit programme Strictly Come Dancing enjoys high viewing figures – it is watched, for example, by almost 19% of Shanghai households. But in a ‘Brucie bonus’ for the producers, it has also become mired in a national controversy, further boosting its prominence.
The furore was sparked in the semi-finals when judge Fang Jun lambasted the dancing of celebrity contestant, Haotian. Fang told him: “You are the worst I have ever seen. It was a mistake to let you into the semi-final. I feel sorry for our audience.”
Haotian – a 30 year-old TV personality – had waltzed with his partner under faux-London streetlights for much of the performance, but in the finale, as he lowered her earthbound, he practically dropped her on the floor.
Visibly shocked by Fang’s critique, Haotian hit back, saying he’d practiced very hard and it was wrong to judge him so severely. He said Fang should consider they are amateurs, and not pass verdict as if they were professional dancers.
The dispute continued to simmer after the show, as Fang maintained that he was right. Mentors must be harsh, he reckoned.
In hope of a rapprochement, the pair were invited to appear on The New Old-Uncle, a daily TV show in Shanghai in which a mediator tries to solve disputes live on air. The mediator came down on Haotian’s side, regarding the judge as “too harsh”. He warned Fang that he wasn’t scoring an international dance competition, but a variety programme, and should shift his standards accordingly.
Of course, with Western audiences used to the acerbic bluntness of American Idol judge Simon Cowell (“It sounded like cats jumping off the Empire State Building”) all this may seem a little tame.
But in America plain-speaking is so valued that it is protected by the first amendment of the constitution. In China the cultural norms are somewhat different and people have spent the best part of 5,000 years trying to disguise their meaning so as to avoid giving direct offence. ‘Face’ (and the concept of ‘saving it’) is a big deal.
The talent show format obviously flies in the face of such norms – judges have to be outspoken (and occasionally offensive) to ensure good ratings. And Dance Show’s Fang is now just one of the many “poison tongues” – a Chinese term for TV judges. The talent show format has mushroomed and so has “verbal abuse”, notes the Xinmin Evening News. It quotes one judge comparing a female contestant to a pig and another who said the singing was so bad he was about to “vomit blood”.
Then again, reports the newspaper, it hasn’t all gone the judges’ way. In one show – which translates literally as ‘Tempting Heart for the First Time’ – a young male contestant played a practical joke on the judging panel. One of the female judges – Ke Yimin – had become famous for bestowing rings on performers she favoured, and he asked her for one. He then passed the ring to her fellow judge, Yang Er Chenamu, prompting Ke to burst into tears at the perceived slight. The contestant then announced that, if he had to choose either of the judges to be his girlfriend, he’d choose Ke because “she was younger”. Insulted herself the ‘older woman’, Yang then broke down in tears too.
Even judges have feelings, it seems.
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