Line dancing instructor Yap Oi Fah speaks to Priya Kulasagaran on how the dance form is shaking off its old-school image for a more eclectic look
I had more than a few misconceptions in mind when I attended my first line dancing class a few months ago, expecting a group of older women shuffling along to “Achy Breaky Heart”. As it turns out, that concept is as outdated as my knowledge of country music.
In the narrow hallway of the New Life Restoration Centre’s foyer in Petaling Jaya, an upbeat Justin Timberlake song filled the space with hip hop sounds. The cosy class of around 20 women gracefully showed off their agile moves, getting into the rhythm of the music. Leading them was instructor Yap Oi Fah, a sprightly 71-year-old, coaxing her students to keep up and gently correcting the occasional missteps. Just earlier, the class had gone through a sensual Latin pop song, and a more rambunctious Bollywood number.
“Some people have the impression that line dancing is only for ‘old’ people, and that we dance to country and western songs, but that’s definitely not the case anymore,” Yap told me during her brief break. “Now you dance to different kinds of rhythms – the cha cha, the samba, the jive, the waltz, the quick step – there are all sorts of types of dances involved. People also think it’s slow, but we seniors can keep up with the times; I often add a bit of hip hop and contemporary pop into my classes!”
While the oldest in the class is 78-years-old, some of the participants are in their 40s or even younger. “Age is not an issue; you can be 20 and feel old, and people who are 80 may not feel old at all. So it’s all about your mindset I think,” quipped Yap.
One perception that does seem to hold up is that line dancing tends to be popular with women; indeed, there is not a single man present in this class. “I think the appeal is that in line dancing, you don’t need a partner. So for many ladies whose husbands or boyfriends don’t share their love for dancing, this is a good outlet. You can learn the steps on your own without having to rely on a partner,” said Yap.
Line dancing is exactly what its name implies: people dancing in lines to music. These dances involve a repeating sequence of steps that are performed together by a group of people in lines or rows. More often than not, dancers do not make contact with each another.
Despite the popular media portrayal of line dancers in cowboy boots and hats, the first line dances were thought to have their origins in folk dancing. For instance, contra dancing, a type of American folk dancing, is believed to have greatly influenced the kind of line dancing steps we see today. It was only during the 1980s that line dances started being created for popular country songs; the Macarena that infected the world in the 1990s is a form of line dance as well.
What got Yap started on her passion for dance was actually her love for singing. “Dancing is part of music, and a form of expression as well,” she explained. “When I was in school, we had square dancing as a school activity, and I found my love for dance then. I just enjoyed it very much.”
Following her retirement as a teacher, Yap first started a singing group, and then decided to join a line dancing session. “I was fortunate that I had a friend who gave me a book on line dancing. It was through reading that I realised that it was more than just simply counting steps; there was proper technique. So I started learning more from then on,” she added.
Soon, as the class grew and she displayed her own innate talent for adhering to rhythm, Yap was asked to lead her group. She realised that if she were to start teaching people herself, she needed to be sure that she was teaching them the right methods. “That’s the teacher in me talking,” she said with a laugh. “I went to another former teacher of mine, and she encouraged me to take up the certification course to be a line dancing instructor. The syllabus is quite wide; I had to learn over 40 dances, remember all the terms and etiquette, and even learn the basic physiology involved. And I only had two months to do so because the one-on-one examination was so soon!”
While she momentarily wondered what she had got herself into, Yap’s late husband encouraged her to soldier on. “He just said, never mind, just go ahead with it,” she recalled. “He told me it didn’t matter if I did well or not, as long as I tried my best. So I was really happy when I got my distinction in the exam!”
As Yap led her class, it was clear that she has a natural flair for moving in tandem with the rhythm of music. While she admitted that it may be an inborn inclination, practice is key to being a good dancer. “When you listen to music, like something with jive elements for instance, your movement should show the characteristics of the jive. It’s not easy for some people, because they may not know the body language, but slowly, you will get into it,” she said.
More important however, is a genuine interest for dance in the first place. “Sometimes, you may need another person to stimulate your interest and keep it going,” she said. “So my drive is get them (her students) to move forward, to try get them to do better and to improve. They may not become professional dancers, but at least they will be able to dance well.”
She added that finding the right group of people also helps. “The right group won’t make you feel shy, and give you self-confidence. This group for example, welcomes everyone with open arms. With everyone being so accepting, even newer students don’t feel self-conscious,” she said.