Jennifer Carpenter: Generation Dance, 2010-2011

Jennifer Carpenter

Introduction by Jennifer Carpenter

Twice a week, about two dozen retirees meet at the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association for two hours of ballroom dance. Women slip into glittery heels as men sort the sign-in sheet and song selection. As the music starts to reverberate into the old wooden floorboards, feet begin to shuffle to the rhythms of foxtrot, waltz, and rumba.

There is a wide regional variety in language, cultural practices, and socioeconomic status present in the dance hall, reflecting the size and diversity of China itself. Among the dance patrons, there are retired accountants, engineers, professors, doctors, restaurant owners, day labors, and housewives. People hailing from two of the regions in China that send the largest number of immigrants to Boston—Guangdong Province and Hong Kong—constitute more than half of the dancing population. The rest come from various other provinces including those in northern China, as well as Shanghai and the island of Taiwan.

“We all come from different parts of China, from Beijing to Shanghai to Guangzhou. We all speak different languages. At ballroom you don’t need words, you just need dance.”—Jing Chen

As is typical in Boston Chinatown, the air is dominated by exchanges in Cantonese, though other languages that fill the hall include Mandarin (the official language of the People’s Republic and Taiwan) and Taishanese, a dialect from Guangdong Province. Most dancers congregate with friends from their same tongue, though language does not hinder any dancing among the group as a whole.

While the variety of dances may be similar to commercial social dance halls in China, the Boston Chinatown dance hall is a hodgepodge of regional variations of styles. As such, the Chinese “national consciousness” being played out on the dance floor is an old-fashioned, cultural mishmash. Ballads by Taiwan’s Deng Lijun (Teresa Tang) and PRC songs idolizing Chairman Mao evoke the same amount of nostalgia.

As an art form and as a practice, Chinese ballroom dance is a paradox of collective and individual identity expression. In a predominantly Anglo-Saxon city outside of the dance hall, these participants are used to being labeled, in the most blanket of terms, as immigrant Chinese. And in one sense, the dance hall patrons reinforce this homogenous national concept—they come to the weekly sessions to find company among their Chinese friends, to listen to Chinese music, and to speak Chinese.

And yet like the hodgepodge of songs that float through the air—this awkward mixing of Chinese aesthetics allow the dancers to celebrate their different backgrounds and experience. Through slight variations in song and dance, the patrons are able to express the tremendous linguistic, political, and ethnic discrepancies that make them unique. Ballroom dancing is both a locus for collective memory and a platform for personal identity building.

“My generation is a very awkward generation. We carry the new and old together. We have a responsibility to the old generation, and also we have a responsibility to the new generation. We’re stuck in between.” —Ginny Chang

The nature of contemporary ballroom dancing lacks any fixed identity or national custom. No country can claim authority over the practice of modern, competitive ballroom dance.

When Boston Chinatown’s retirees are waltzing on the floor, they are not longing to escape communism, or hastening to become ‘‘Westerners.” Rather, they are embracing a transitory identity. Ballroom dancing is the very attempt to respond to intercultural existence through the body. The very act of ballroom dance reflects and resists cross-cultural values simultaneously.

This is the universality of ballroom dance. This documentary is based on ten months of participant observation in the Boston Chinatown ballroom dance scene from October 2010 to July 2011.

Thanks to: Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association of New England, Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, Chinese Historical Society of New England, Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center.

References: Andrew David Field, Shanghai's Dancing World: Cabaret Culture and Urban Politics; Richard Gunde, Culture and Customs of China; Rie Karatsu, Cultural Absorption of Ballroom Dancing in Japan; Wing-kai To, Chinese in Boston, 1870–1965


Jennifer Carpenter completed the Certificate in Documentary Arts at the Center for Documentary Studies in 2009 while pursuing her BA in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. As an undergraduate, she produced documentary videos for ABC News, the Washington Post, ETV News in South Africa, and the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in China. After graduation, Jennifer spent a year developing multimedia pieces for UNICEF on a J. William Fulbright Scholarship to Albania. Jennifer is currently reading for a master’s degree at the London School of Economics.

As a 2010–2011 Hine Fellow, Jennifer worked in collaboration with the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center (BCNC) to create two documentaries:

The Chinatown Alphabet Project is a visual literacy program developed in collaboration with BCNC and the Literacy Through Photography program. Jennifer created a visual literacy program that honors the power of photography as a catalyst to better understanding our community. Jennifer led more than one hundred Chinatown residents in photography appreciation and technique; her students then developed images that explore BCNC’s role within the Chinatown community. 

Generation Dance is a story about ballroom dance in Boston Chinatown—from the generation of immigrant Chinese that witnessed a whirlwind of war, revolution, and nation building. By exploring the complexities of ballroom dance history in twentieth century China from the voices and perspectives of Boston Chinatown residents, ballroom dance serves as a powerful and beautiful demonstration of one generation’s uniting and transitory experience. Explore Generation Dance at

Jennifer Carpenter

Jennifer Carpenter

Lewis Hine Documentary Fellow 2010-2011

Jennifer Carpenter completed the Certificate in Documentary Arts at the Center for Documentary Studies in 2009 while pursuing her B.A. in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.