/ 5 March 2008

Chinese cheerleaders confront tradition in hot pants

Wearing mesh tank tops, the cheerleaders waved their pom-poms non-stop and danced with gusto — if only to stay warm in the unheated basketball arena.

The smiling young women have come to expect a crowd response as chilly as the winter wind outside. They shimmy to Shakira as spectators stare sullenly, then prance off the court to anemic applause.

Maybe the Beijing Games can change things.

China’s 1,3-billion people are crazy about sports, but not cheerleaders. Those women who have taken to the all-American phenomenon hope that plans for cheerleaders at the Olympics will bring some glamour to their work.

”I don’t know if it’s because of Chinese people’s personalities or maybe because basketball culture isn’t so ingrained that they’re still scared to let loose,” cheerleader Li Qi said a few days after the weeknight women’s basketball game, without a whiff of bitterness.

”We’re used to it. That’s just how it is.”

The Olympics are a huge celebration of national pride, and organisers are encouraging ordinary Chinese to play a role. Along with more than a million volunteer applicants and retirees learning English to communicate with foreign visitors, cheerleaders also are eager to leave a mark.

Cheerleading got its official start in China in 2002, when the Chinese Basketball Association took a cue from the NBA and hired professional dancers to replace the schoolgirls who performed aerobics during breaks in play.

For five years, Li has cheered at everything from basketball games to company anniversary celebrations. But the dancing is simply foreign to many Chinese fans, who would rather puff a cigarette or stretch their legs when play stops.

A Beijing resident who watched Li and her teammates from the Soojin Dance troupe perform at a recent handball tournament said he hoped there would be no Western dance routines at the games in August.

”The Beijing Olympics represent China. China should showcase the best of China for the world. … If you bring out foreign performances, the foreigners will say, ‘This is garbage from home, why did we come all the way to see this?”’ Shen Jing half-shouted, stabbing the air with his finger. ”We don’t want garbage! We want China’s best and most exciting.”

Soojin Dance has performed at several competitions viewed as test events for the Olympics, from beach volleyball and handball to a wheelchair basketball tournament. Olympics organisers say they have not decided how cheerleaders will be involved at the Beijing Games.

Li used to be a children’s website editor but quit her job because she felt guilty taking off so much time for cheerleading. Now, she is costume manager for the Soojin troupe, earning about 1 500 yuan ($200) a month, half her previous salary. She supplements her income teaching yoga a few times a week.

Li spends her days coordinating costumes for performances and keeping track of the multiple sets of more than 50 different outfits.

The cheerleaders say they cannot compete with the athleticism or curvaceous physiques of their NBA counterparts, so they try to stand out with unique outfits.

Purple hot pants with matching slouchy leg warmers, glittery silver suspenders, gauzy Middle Eastern-style skirts, white ruffled halter tops and shimmery bras are packed into large black fabric bags stacked along one wall of the office.

A favourite is a super-short version of a traditional Chinese dress — Velcro fasteners allow it to be ripped off to reveal a skimpier costume underneath.

Nineteen-year-old rookie Song Xueqing has not fully explained the job to her family. Her parents live down south and have yet to see her perform.

”I just told them that I joined the Soojin Dance team. I said, ‘Why don’t you take a look online?”’ said Song, grinning. ”They looked, and my grandma, who’s really old-fashioned, said, ‘Look at those girls wearing outfits with their bellies showing!’ And so I didn’t say anything. If my grandma saw the clothes I was wearing, she’d go crazy!”

Three hours before tip-off for the women’s game between the Beijing Great Wall and Liaoyang Golden Lions, the cheerleaders were rehearsing in the empty arena.

No one bothered to turn on the lights, so the six young women practiced in the weak sunshine filtering through a skylight spanning the length of the court. It was late afternoon and grew steadily darker as they discussed formations and spacing.

There was no recorded music, their voices the only accompaniment to the dancing.

”Rollin … rollin … rollin on the rivaaaa,” Li sang. Her voice bounced off the bare gray walls of the Shougang Basketball Centew, named after its corporate sponsor, a gargantuan steel mill that is being moved to another province to reduce air pollution for the Olympics.

Performing during every timeout and after each quarter, the cheerleaders put on 11 sassy routines. The dancing was by no means perfect: One girl started dancing four beats too early, another was out of position during a transition, Li stumbled.

”We basically all have jobs and do this part-time,” Li said. ”So you can’t expect a lot, all we can do is try our best.” – Sapa-AP

On the net

Li Qi’s blog

Soojin Dance