Into the rhythm

Almost any open space in Vietnam can become a dance studio at almost any time of day.

By Joe A on August 20,2018 03:32 PM

Into the rhythm

Photos: Cam Le

It’s your first night in the city and you want to take a casual stroll around one of the peaceful parks or lakes in the area. The parks are a common gathering place so there will naturally be a good bit of activity going on: joggers of various speeds, badminton players having a net-less rally, children playing, and people of all ages enjoying a cup of sweet, sweet sugarcane juice. But soon you’ll hear a curious beat driving hard in the distance, and if you follow its call you’ll wander upon a scene most peculiar as you behold a rapidly gyrating army of sweaty dancers.

The music isn’t always great, but no one came for the music, they came for the burn. Most larger parks will have a decent sound system set up to pump those jams. All you need is one song with a fast pace and a person leading a routine and you’ll have a crowd in no time. Sometimes the crowds are small, but if you catch evening primetime you’ll be inundated with hundreds (possibly) of women (definitely) coming for their nightly Aerobic Dance, with extra emphasis on both of those words.

Most moves will be familiar but given at the behest of a drill instructor you’ll be dripping before you know it. First move, one hand on your head and the other hand on your hip, then pop your hip. Next move, both hands in a fist next to your head with your elbows out, then Pop Your Hip. Now try one hand swinging in a windmill with the other pumping a fist at your side and as always, ‘POP YOUR HIP, Faster, Harder, Come On, You’re Never Gonna Work Off That Last Kilo Dancing Like That, Now Pop Faster!!’ Of course, there is a good amount of stepping to the right, generally followed by a step to the left. Forward and backward stepping get a sizeable role in this affair as well. Just remember, whatever you do, do it faster than seems appropriate - this is the key to getting in the groove and burning off those calories. Faster!

Who are these dancers? From the times I’ve watched it seems like the majority of the regulars are middle-aged women; lots of mothers and grandmothers. I’ve never seen a single man in these sessions, but it’s not exclusively middle-aged women as there is a fair chance of seeing younger, exceedingly fit women all the way up the spectrum to much older, frail looking women (though they can still dance circles around you and me so maybe not so frail after all). The attire is almost always universal, gym pants and a sports bra, no shirts allowed.

This is where you might want to ask me how I’ve logged so many hours of observation. It’s a normal question and one I’ve answered many times. I run in the parks at the same time that they exercise, or sometimes I just sit and watch. Strangely enough, I become the centre of attention when I sit on a hot night with a cold beverage in front of countless columns of crazed dancers. Although I feel bad for teasing them with my presence, sometimes you have to tell the real story and that requires a good view. A good story also requires someone to get their hands dirty, or in this case, their head sweaty. I can easily say I got a few glances while sitting and watching, but I’m confident in saying that not a single person met eyes with me when I got up and joined the fun. Maybe they were shy about a man getting into the mix or maybe they were embarrassed for me, but once I started I could tell they were making a conscious effort to not look directly at me, like when you see a badly-behaved child in public and you imagine that completely ignoring it will make it go away. Only I’m the child whose parents never taught me how to dance.

Here I go, I find my place and get the feel of the rhythm. I may have mentioned that the dance is fast, it’s uncomfortably fast, like the pace used in a movie montage that is made to disorient the viewer. The little beads collect on my hair and one well-placed drop finds my eye. It stings so good, it stings like fitness, ‘I’m getting sexy’ is all I can think. I feel as if I dance for hours, I’m really feeling my oats, grace and beauty wash over me as all my energy is completely spent, then the first song ends. Really? That was just one song? I immediately gain overwhelming respect for this silly looking performance and those who can keep it up for an hour.

So you say you’re not brave enough to join the fray of a hundred synchronised dancers? No problem. Groups vary in size from the large end to the smallest conceivable amount of people. I’ve seen one-on-one training sessions with a single lady getting her burn on face-to-face with the instructor. I’ve even seen people without a leader, standing solo, like a stoic paragon of human endurance, popping those hips to the rhythm in their head. Maybe the music is too loud for you? That’s fine. There’s almost always a secondary group a bit further removed with a lower level of intensity. Parks aren’t your scene? You can find this happening in all parts of the city: the mausoleum grounds, the botanical gardens, pedestrian malls, or even a large footpath can function as a studio if you’re committed enough. There’s no excuse for missing out, as you can find a time to join from before 6am until about 10pm. The time I saw the privately-tutored lesson was at noon with a furious sun overhead. Talk about dedication, any hour will suffice.

It’s okay if aerobic dance is not your thing at all. The parks are still well landscaped and offer many other types of group experiences: you can take a whirl in the ballroom dancing if you have a partner that can keep up with you, you can control your inner flow with tai chi, or you can align your chakras with the statue like meditators. However, if you want to shed some inches to a sweet groove, while learning some fresh moves that you can whip out in the club later, there’s really only one place you can turn. And honestly, you owe it to their hard work to take a peek and marvel at this spectacle.

As for me, I must admit my dancing days are done, I’ve decided to hang up my sports bra for good. My experience was favourable and I’ve been indelibly marked by my time in the fitness lines. Though I only participated for a few songs before a summer rain cancelled the event, what I learned will last a lifetime. I’ll never forget that hip pop until my dying day. Now when I run by the hordes doing their routine I don’t just have a childish snicker on my face, I have deep feelings of nostalgia accompanying my childish snicker. And sometimes when I lie in bed late at night wondering if my life has been a life well spent, I remember the good old days when I was part of something so beautiful and so much greater than myself and I can fall asleep with a smile on my face and the faint whisper of a beat in my ear. 

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