The universal language of dance

12 April 2023

As he takes his partner for a spin on the dance floor, Feng Yong Chang imagines he is still young and dancing in a Shanghai ballroom.

Around him, older people dance in pairs. A little bit of rumba. Some cha-cha-cha. A waltz or two. The foxtrot. A tango.

“How old I am doesn’t matter. It’s how I am old that matters. You see the difference?” Yong Chang said.

Every Wednesday he joins about 50 older people in North Melbourne at the Jean McKendry Neighbourhood Centre.

Most come to dance. Others to play cards or mahjong. To speak in Mandarin, and Cantonese, and to keep old hometown dialects alive in their minds.

They’re all part of the North Melbourne Chinese Association, founded in 2006.

“It’s not just physical. It’s also spiritual. It activates something in me. Something inside me is awake.”

A person's hand resting on a mahjong board.
Playing mahjong in North Melbourne

Secretary Irene Yin has volunteered since 2014. Each week, she prepares snacks for all. Today it’s hot dogs with dried pork, Chinese style, and enough coffee to keep the dancefloor pumping into the afternoon.

She points to a man on the dance floor who is smiling as he holds his partner close.

“That man rides his bicycle to the train station, puts it on the train, and then rides here from North Melbourne train station. Every week. He’s 89 years old,” Irene said.

Irene and Yong Chang both speak a Shanghai dialect. They became firm friends after meeting through this group nearly 20 years ago.

Two older people dance together in a large hall.
Irene and Yong Chang dance every Wednesday

Only the pandemic could keep them from the dance floor. It was two-and-a-half years before they could samba again.

“The first time I saw him after we came back, I thought: he looks older. He stayed at home too long. No exercise, no connection. Gradually, slowly, he can dance again and be active,” Irene said.

“I’m much better,” Yong Chang said. Now in his 80s, he moved to Australia from Shanghai 30 years ago.

“It’s good to come here every week and see my friends. To make sure everyone is alright. Then I’m alright too.”

Yong Chang also comes to the neighbourhood centre on a Tuesday for one-on-one tech support as he learns his way around a mobile phone and computer.

“There are so many things I have to learn to move forward together with the changing world,” Yong Chang said.

“This neighbourhood centre plays a very important part in our life. It connects us to the living world.”

Yong Chen’s wife comes with him each week on a Wednesday – although for now she’s sidelined with a knee injury. She sits in a cluster of friends, watching the dancers.

Someone claps in time with the music. Another swishes open a fan and waves it to cool herself. A cheer goes up.

“Everyone feels happy. We turn not older with the years, but newer every day,” Yong Chang said.

“Our life is a renewable one. We’re like a battery, we want to be recharged. We come here for that.”

Does your organisation or community group offer regular activities or support services for older people and carers in the City of Melbourne? Apply now to use our neighbourhood centres in North Melbourne, Kensington and South Yarra. Applications close Wednesday 31 May.

A person's hands holding a selection of playing cards.
Playing cards every Wednesday in North Melbourne

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