Dongguan From the Underground: Dance to the Music

Roderick (黑仔) and the DGT CREW (东叁角)

Roderick (黑仔) and the DGT CREW (东叁角)

“Dance is different,” said Rena Farzaliyeva, founder of Around the World Dance Studio, after finishing a quick session before sitting down to talk.

Rena Farzaliyeva

Rena Farzaliyeva

“When I was in second grade, my mom brought me to the local dancing school to take the entrance exam. In front of me, they told her that I wasn’t like her—a professional ballerina—and couldn’t be a classical dancer. So, this harsh idea was put in my head, but I still ended up later starting in the folk section in sixth grade,” she revealed.

Just like other addictive hobbies or professions, when someone cares about dance, their life will transmit its influences. Unlike other arts, dance truly is different because even on standby, it’s waiting to activate and break into show. All that’s needed is a catchy beat.

“I love dance because it keeps me healthy and my mind strong. When I came here with my husband, I wasn’t sure what to do. I knew how to dance, so I made it into a career. Now, I’m married to China,” explained Rena.

For dancers coming from street forms, their efforts to gain initial acceptance were just as rocky.

“I started dancing in 2008 and there was no support like in Guangzhou or some foreign countries. The government and people thought dancers were gangsters. We were misunderstood. However, we kept attending different competitions and won plenty of prizes. By 2014, more and more people had changed their minds and started joining us to promote this culture. Today, you can see more and more people feeling the positivity of what we do,” said Roderick (黑仔), leader of DGT CREW (东叁角).

Others just needed understanding and support from their families before fully taking the plunge.

Ear (莫尔城) & Ice (李梓豪)

Ear (莫尔城) & Ice (李梓豪)

“I can still remember how happy I was when my mom promised to pay for my first lesson. Even if I needed to leave at 8 am and come home at 8 pm, I didn’t mind. I worked a lot of part-time jobs and tried my best to save money for classes. When I turned on my computer, I didn’t want computer games, I sought out dancing videos. My mom realized how it made me become a better person and saw it in a completely different way,” said Ear (莫尔城), an instructor at Bold Art Workshop.

Ultimately, though, if you’re not doing something almost exclusively for your own satisfaction, why do it at all? Bucking the haters, love always finds a way to put the pieces together.

“When I started, we were out on the streets or squares. We just got an MP3 player for music and danced like the [old women in the square]. As time went on, more and more people knew about dancing and better artists came to Dongguan. Then, people started opening studios to make places where we could practice together,” said Jasonz (张锦豪), owner of Puzzles Art Workshop.

Jasonz (张锦豪)

Jasonz (张锦豪)

Dedication is key in the underground environment—not just for learning a new skill, but for progressing the status of a minor society. As China’s wealth grows, people are increasingly tapping into the possibilities of the outside world. Still, cities like Dongguan are fractured: stuck with one foot in the past and the other stretching towards the future.

“Because Dongguan is a second-tier city, the ability to get new information is much slower than for first-tier cities, like Beijing or Shanghai. Our cultural deposits are simply not strong enough, yet. There’s a saying: ‘Dongguan is a cultural desert.’ Actually, this is common in many second-tier cities,” said dancer Joy Rock (阿景) of DG City.

Joy Rock (阿景)

Joy Rock (阿景)

Like much of the underground culture coming from the West, the essence of the effort comes from the desire to create a voice loud enough to make change. Sometimes the statements made are there simply to prove that one cause or another profoundly matters.

“Some people say that Dongguan is a cultural desert. Some people even think that we are too young to improve it. I want to do my best to let them know they are wrong. We went to eight different high schools to do talk about our community and get others excited. We’re working from the ground up to promote this culture,” Ice (李梓豪), also a teacher at Bold Art Workshop.

The old heads of the dance community, while once unapologetically competitive and confrontational—especially in battle—are now shifting their focus to better the local society, with the backing of their art. Still, even efforts rooted in goodwill have dangerous pitfalls.

“If you want to be part of this community, please don’t think about how much money or benefit you can get from it. Keep your interests and principles. I hope everyone like us will try their best to create a good atmosphere. I’m looking forward to a big party with dancers, extreme sport players, graffiti artists and so on coming together to expose our culture to more and more people,” urged Roderick.

Though, in the end, it’s really all about feeling good.

Dancers of Puzzles Art Workshop

Dancers of Puzzles Art Workshop

“Hip hop should be happy. It’s all for fun. It should make us unified, not used for fighting or battling. I just want to use the culture for peace. Now, this is how I feel about hip hop,” explained Jasonz.

Category Cover Stories