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Discoing to `Jingle Bells'? Only in Peking. Dance fever hits China - in a `civilized, wholesome' way, of course

`IT'S DISCO,'' my friend blurted out, jumping to the dance floor. Everyone at our table joined him, partners not required.

The band played a frumpish version of ``Jingle Bells,'' mercifully short. It brought several hundred people to their feet on this Saturday night at the ballroom of Peking's Yanjing Hotel.

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After a series of slower tunes that taxed dancers' ingenuity with the waltz and tango, this ``disco'' number was, well, a change of pace.

Dancing is the most popular spare-time activity for urban Chinese youth. Ballroom dancing flourished during the 1950s, and some Peking matrons remember waltzing with Premier Chou En-lai when he showed up at the grand ballroom of the Peking Hotel for weekend dance parties.

During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), dancing was regarded as evidence of a ``bourgeois'' life style. It was permitted again in the late 1970s, but has suffered unduly from an official wariness of Western culture and a suspicion that it spawns social disorder and corrupts youth.

Since then, dance parties and commercial dance halls have come and gone, depending on the whims of the authorities. Dance halls in Shanghai were temporarily closed in late 1985, and dance parties elsewhere have often been disallowed.

One visitor to Xian last year reported that a student there had been assigned a brief stint at a rural work camp for organizing a private dance party.

To Western ears, the Chinese dance music may not be recognizable. Bands rarely deviate from a repertoire of tunes several decades old, reflecting the musicians' classical training, lack of comprehension of Western pop music, and caution toward contemporary Western culture.

In 1982, a booklet appeared as an aid to the unwary: ``How to Distinguish Decadent Music.'' It warned against certain kinds of ``soft, turbulent, and alluring rhythms'' in dance music and advised that jazz goes ``against the normal psychological needs of man and leads people into an abnormal and demented state of mind.''

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China's latest wave of conservatism has again nipped at dancers' heels. This time it has quickly, if tentatively, receded as the government has decreed that dancing does not necessarily violate the party's renewed opposition to ``bourgeois liberalization.''

``Some people are apprehensive that dances may be made use of by criminal elements or may cause bad social effects, but actually there is no inevitable connection between dance and crime,'' said Jiao Yongfu, director of the Bureau of Social Culture in the Ministry of Culture.

The announcement has been met with relief in cities where local cultural affairs bureaus have fought with police who recently closed some commercial dance halls because they might result in hooliganism.

Mr. Jiao said that commercial ballrooms are permissible, if they follow certain rules. Social order should be maintained and dancers' postures and movements as well as the music had to be ``civilized and wholesome,'' he told a Hong Kong newspaper recently.

``We do not allow any obscene and sexy performances, such as `strip-tease' and `snuggling-up dances,''' he added. Hired partners are not permitted. Foreigners and Chinese may dance together if approved by the local culture bureau. In the past, many localities have issued ``Chinese only'' licenses to hotel dance halls though foreign visitors are sometimes welcome if they are not regular guests.

Jiao was quoting from a new circular, issued jointly by the Ministry of Culture, the Public Security Ministry, and the State Industrial and Commerical Administrative Bureau. The circular said that the public is allowed to pay for admission to dances held by Chinese work units, hotels, and other organizations. The ruling is expected to encourage more dance parlors thoughout the country.

In Peking, the Saturday night dance at the Yanjing Hotel has become a routine affair, with tickets selling for 10 yuan ($2.70) each.

Almost every large hotel in the city has a weekend dance. The Great Wall Hotel's Cosmos Club is open only to foreigners, but Chinese manage to enter the disco club at the Lido Holiday Inn, also a foreign joint-venture hotel. Foreigners sometimes can gain admittance to other dances in the capital.

Most popular with foreigners and some locals is the occasional dance party at Maxim's, featuring a foreign jazz group and a local Chinese rock band. In all, there are only four officially licensed commercial dance halls in the city, though officials say there will soon be more.

Peking is lagging behind other cities in the dance business. Shanghai now has 77 public dance places and Canton has 130.

As the culture official indicated, dancing styles at these establishments are closely monitored. At the Yanjing recently, one dancer who was conspicuous for his highly stylized solo work was stopped from deviating from the mediocre norms of the rest of us.

A man appeared from the shadows and chatted briefly with the dancer on the ballroom floor. The young man did not argue, and for the rest of the evening he danced with a partner in stodgy ballroom style.

Everyone else was happy working out their own conventional steps, and this sole foreigner was trying to remember how to do the rumba - with a partner who was both private taxi driver and recent mother of a baby boy, no less.

One, two, three, pause....

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