In a short video that went viral, we watch a whole elementary school – students and teachers alike – shuffle-dancing in perfect sync and alignment, inside their schoolyard, in China’s Shanxi province. More videos and interviews followed that elucidated the goal of the original dance project.
Elementary school principal Zhang Pengfei noticed that the current curriculum failed to motivate his students to exercise and, like many kids growing up in a tech-savvy, increasingly online world, they would rather spend their breaks on their phones. As all innovative teachers know, solutions are not always to be found within the limits of the official curriculum, so Principal Zhang thought outside of the box: he learned a shuffle-dance routine and introduced it to his students and colleagues, so that they could dance together during recess.
Since autumn 2018, Principal Zhang has been leading a schoolyard full of kids and teachers to shuffle to feelgood songs. Zhang’s novel approach not only addresses the need to motivate kids to exercise more, but also offers a solution to the issue of lack of space. The limited space of the playground hosts 700 children during breaks, and thus cannot accommodate ball games or allow all of them to run around freely. Shuffling, by contrast, can be done on the spot and Zhang organised the kids in lines and rows, to which they adhere remarkably.
The fact that Zhang picked the shuffle as his dance of choice is interesting. Shuffling originated in the early 90s rave dance scene of Australia, known then as the Melbourne shuffle. It is also referred to as ‘cutting shapes’ or ‘stomping’, both indicative of the rhythmical, sharp movement involved. It is a high-intensity, fast-tempo dance mainly consisting of vigorous heel–toe motions of the feet coordinated to intricate arm movements, mainly danced to electronic music.
Like many other 90s trends, shuffling became popular with the rise of social media. It definitely takes an open mind and some creative thinking to transfer a dance from the rave clubs to the rigidness of an educational system. It is true that the freedom of expression ingrained in club dancing culture gets lost along the way. A schoolyard of uniformly dressed children dancing in perfect sync can take on many connotations. Uniformity is historically used as a regulatory tool by various authoritative systems. From school uniforms and dress codes to military parades, it is employed in order to suppress individuality and to promote discipline. Zhang’s students, in their bright uniforms and in perfect alignment, definitely seem disciplined. But the lightness of the dance that reflects on their faces is multiplied through their use of uniformity, and diffuses a sense of joy.
Shuffling might look simple, but is definitely not: the bouncy, aerobic dance increases heart and breathing rate and demands stamina and highly complex coordination skills. The kids, rosy-cheeked and smiling, execute the moves with admirable dedication. They stomp, hop, pump their arms and shout in unison, following Zhang’s lead and tuned together by the constant rhythmical bouncing from one foot to the other. The group has managed to go beyond the basic steps, namely the running man (imitating running on the spot, sliding the feet backwards) and t-step (a side step on one leg twisting on the heel). They learned several elaborately choreographed routines, full of sharp arm movements, intricate footstep patterns, ankle twists and constant changes of direction. Their full on concentration is adorably inscribed on their faces as they dance.
In terms of Zhang’s core objective – getting kids moving – the experiment can only be considered successful: the kids are bouncing, the heart beats are rising, the endorphins are flowing, the calories are burnt – and all before their break is over. ●