Sunday, 28 September 2008

The Youth Palace

Owner Chen dancing with partner. Photo by Will Yakowicz 

6. The Palace of Memory

I didn’t stumble into Doyers Street, just off Chatham Square on the Bowery. I didn’t really find it myself either. I was told about the elbow-shaped street, which has a violent history of Irish and then Chinese gang wars, the opium trade, and illegal gambling rackets, by a friend of mine who throws parties. He gave me a card that read: Youth Palace, Inc. with an address: 11-13 Doyers Street. I walked slowly into the street, with its moldy Post Office, dim sum joints, barber shops and beauty parlors, and listened. I heard a faint beat. I continued to walk and the beat got louder and then I heard the high pitch of Mandarin. I looked up to a purple curtained window and knew I was there.

The long wide room smells of cigarettes and nostalgia. he lined faces of the dancers, all middle-aged Chinese couples, are illuminated green, red and yellow by lights that spin and pulse. An elegantly dressed sixty-year-old man bows and extends his hand to a forty-year-old woman in an evening gown. “May I have this dance?” his wordless gesture says. She accepts. He gently pulls her hips close and leads with assertive yet delicate steps. To an outsider, the music that propels them is an intriguing mixture: dance-inducing bass beats, and wildly exotic, pop-infused Chinese folk music layered with a fetching wistful serenade of Mandarin vocals.

Youth Palace, Incorporated on Doyers Street is the only dance studio in New York that specializes in the five traditional dances from the Fuzhou Province, which many of New York’s Chinese immigrants once called home. Xi Chen, the owner, is a Fuzhou native. Wearing a blue blazer, blue slacks and dancing shoes, Chen has a light moustache, a youthful bounce, and nearly perfect rhythm. At age fifteen in his hometown he learned the traditional dances: the Manshan, Manshi, Quaishan, Quaishi and the Chinese cha-cha, all consisting of fancy footwork, spins and twirls. He immigrated in 1997 and built his dance studio in 2005. “The Chinese are always working, working, working,” says Chen. “So I figured I’d open a dance studio so they can relax and be healthy.”

His words echo the message of the orange and black banner in Mandarin, posted above the wall-to-wall mirrors: “Through dance is energy, culture, health and happiness” is the rough translation. All the studio’s members are Chinese immigrants, so when an outsider walks up the stairs, the one or two who speak English ask outright: “You immigration officer?”

Sherri Chen (no relation to the owner), dressed in a blue evening gown and a matching choker necklace, says she works long hours at the Gramercy Park Hotel, and comes to the studio to unwind and enjoy her culture. Her lean shoulders flex as Chen twirls her. She explains her philosophy: “Life is stressful, but dancing is not.”

The floor is covered with baby powder to help the dancers glide across the surface, but it takes more than powder to pivot elegantly while retaining one’s footing. Sherri, who has soft graceful steps and fluttering fingers, says, “When you dance you must be very light. Be like a fly in the sky, to the rhythm: bom, tah, bom, tah.”

According to owner Chen, the music consists of traditional Chinese folk songs transformed into dance remixes with synthesizers and bass. To some patrons, it brings back memories of home and the passion of youth. Dancer De Lan has movie star looks and walks as if he’s waltzing. He recalls the first time he went to a dance studio, at home in Fuzhou, 20 years ago: “…I thought, ‘the music is exciting my body.’” For the past two years at Youth Palace, he dances three hours at a time, five days a week and attributes his intensity and commitment to the music itself. “The music makes me wild,” he says. “Everyone, when the music is on, goes wild.” The wildness, however, is tempered by grace. There’s a controlled formality to the sound of synthesizers, bass and soothing vocals, sending the room into a rhythmic circular motion.

De Lan dancing away. Photo by Will Yakowicz

Dancing is more than entertainment at Youth Palace. Chen says he started his studio to help his fellow immigrants feel less lost in New York City. “We wish to transplant a bit of Chinese culture to America,” Chen explains. “This studio helps migrants who just arrived and do not speak any English connect with their hometown and culture.”

To gain entrée to Youth Palace, one only needs an unassimilated Chinese identity and a pair of dancing shoes. “We don’t dance to forget, we will never forget where we came from,” Chen proclaims. “We are Chinese and this studio is Chinese culture.” 

The name, Youth Palace, is rather ironic for there are almost no young members here. “People come here to hear the music they grew up listening to,” Chen says. “Dancing to their music rejuvenates them, gives them energy and makes them feel young again.” These dances, he warns, may die out with his generation for they are of a past era.

Notwithstanding, the two daily sessions (2-5 p.m. and 8-11 p.m., seven days a week), typically draw ten or more couples. During the break between sessions, members sit around smoking cigarettes and drinking tea, while others dance before the mirror to put the finishing touches on their waltzes. Chen points out that the dancers in his studio are not competitive; no one boasts of being superior and no one has anything to prove. He says that most members are good dancers, but gallantly insists he cannot pinpoint the best one. Here, a woman named Zhong playfully interjects: “I don’t know who’s the best, but I am the worst!”

As the night’s final song draws to an end, De Lan pops his leather jacket over his shoulders with a flick of his wrist. He knows the secret to the dance, to youth, to Youth Palace. “You have to feel the music,” he says. He takes his dance partner by the arm and they glide through the curtained door, in a cloud of baby powder.

Many thanks to my translator and friend, Winston Woo, for his help.

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