Giselle's Books

Dancing in Shanghai

Hrefna Hörn Leifsdóttir

Shanghai does not feel crowded. Not even the subway feels crowded. Neither does living on the 20th floor, above all these people.  The city puts its marks on you with another kind of pressure than the one from other bodies.

First there are the signs.

No leaning, no running, no smoking, no crossing, please stand to the side, please stand in line, please accept the security check, please report any suspicious activity.

People feel pressured to follow those rules. Because they are watched all the time.

My apartment greets me with 4 security cameras. My friends counted 25 from their gate to the door. On the third day the police knocked on our door to ask if we had all the papers needed for our stay. Of 60 apartments the building contained, they knew which door lead to us.


Across the street from the museum I worked in is a zebra crossing. There is a screen attached to the light- pole that displays pictures of the j-walkers. Those who cross this street on a red light.

A way to shame the city’s inhabitants away from breaking rules the society sets. And a mild example for us the foreigners of the use of facial recognition technique we’ve read about being used in other parts of the country for more aggressive restriction of movements.


The museum is new. It’s a big Frank Lloyd Wright building standing by the riverbank of a formally industrial area. It’s an art- hub now and in the middle is the French- Chinese Centre Pompidou. Partly the well known french institute and partly governmentally run.

A complicated mixture with political strings reaching far outside the museum walls.

I’m hired there to dance almost every day, for six weeks. Within the white walls and blurred windows that lead to the zebra- walking I repeat tasks and loosely instructed, endured movements that often lead into some state of trans. Set up in sets of 5- 20 minutes the movement evolve and change with the intensity of the music, the atmospheric lighting and computer- generated voices which read texts and demands in chineese and english. “Dear museum visitor” they are softer but similar to the ones on the train- platforms and in the supermarket.

“Please step away, the door is closing.”


There is a long history of choreographed public dancing being practised in China for health reasons. Results of which can be seen in public parks, at workplaces as they start their day and in schools. Every morning we woke up to the same soundtrack coming from the elementary school below our apartment. Where the entire school was gathered to perform the daily choreography.


People seem to be encouraged to move, again as long as it happens within a certain frame.


One of the dancer who performs with me has gone through all levels of Communist dance education possible. His CV is filled with high grades and awards. It list the different movements he can perform. One of them is Kung Fu.


Still when he is left to his own devices, told to improvise, Vogue like movements shine through. Movements I suspect were not trained within the walls of the institution but rather in a more private, bedroom- like situations.


My bank of movements comes from dancing at parties. For my adult life, dancing has been a way for me to communicate, forget, digest, meditate, observe and learn from different social environments. Therefor I was curious to discover that layer of the society I was situated in.


Working at the museum was another dancer that strongly identified with being a club kid.


It was made clear through his appearance, the appearance of his friends and what I could see from their social media that his part of their identity played a big role.

Finally on New Years it was time for me to go dancing with them.

The museum next door held a big party all rivers seemed to lead to. It was in a formal tank.

Its rounded interiors were lid up with lazers and projections and the sound system was a top one.

The line up I partly knew from Berlin, which made me think about how small the world was.

Someone told me that the crowded room was filled up with partly club kids and partly art kids, I looked around but had a hard time distinguishing between the two groups. Everyone seemed to wear expressive, carefully thought through outfits and held their phone up high at any given moment. One entertainment after another entered the stage or rushed though the still dance floor. In between the DJ’s played a mix that was hard to follow, jumping between genres and speed only me and three other people tried to follow. The rest passively observed with their phones in the air. It was soon clear to me that the event was not made to participate in. The club night was supposed to be observed. After all it was a museum- party, I reminded myself and responded positively to the suggestion to head to a real club. Taxies were hard to catch at that time so I filled my bag with booze from the nearest convenient – store to share, but no-one else was interested.

When we finally got to the real club we were joined with the rest of the crew outside.

The gathering was another fashion- show. I had gotten used to it by now.

They talked and pointed out the pro- regime cigarettes I had accidentally bought.

I said I was sorry and sipped my drink alone while the conversation continued in Chinese.

Then all of a sudden our plan was to enter the club without paying. We went in as a group and I walked past the bouncer as he caught my friend. The rush of adrenalin sent me straight to the dance floor where three people were jumping to an extremely fast beet.

I lasted about a minute until I turned to the bar. There stood a Norwegian guy, that was a part of the crew I had crashed and spoke flawless chinese. “The clubs here are different.” he said and waved his hand when he noticed my confused face. We had one drink before going back outside where the rest of the group had re- gathered. It was time to eat. The night was over.

There had been no plans of dancing.


Later I got comments for my dancing at that party, “oh I saw you in the story”, “of course it was you who was dancing, you are the dancer”. They seemed neither judgemental comments nor really positive. It seemed to be accepted but rather unusual activity and not necessarily desirable to dance freely to music. And identifying as a club kid had nothing to do with dancing.

I continued my days of dancing in the institution. It was a weird time.

People came to watch and some even staid for hours, I think the piece was generally well excepted.

Inside and outside I was observed. Only inside it was volontary.

Lacking vocabulary when it comes to dance I will include a pharagraph from a recently published article I stumbled up on and can be found here:

“ A dancing denotes one’s psychological state during, but not limited to, any physical activity, or indeed the course of a dance. Its essence is compositional, as derived from choreographic thinking, in organising actions and possibilities. For example, one can feel a dancing when combining opposing actions, like smiling while saying something disturbing. It is also possible to be in a dancing while standing still, and realising every possibility for motion.”


With this text in mind, each movement or facial expression acted outside of the allowed zone of the institution in a way became more of a performance than anything that happened inside of it. Dancing in the club became performative as well as running up the stairs at the station or accidentally leaning against the door of the running train.

But then again, no matter how many times I walked over on a red light my face never got displayed on those screens. It did not really matter how I moved.

Weather I was inside or outside the institution I was outside of the system.

Once saw it display a picture of a tire though .

A tire of a speeding car. It was a really face like tire, with a stretched grin.

As long as I’d been gone before my visa ran out I’d be fine.