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Ballroom Dancer: The First American to Join the LA Chinese Men’s Choir

Never miss a beat. This could be your life motto. It would imply you never falter or look back. It’s a hard rule to live by, but diving deep into new pathways with no hesitation can lead to unexpected positive outcomes. Always worth a try, right?

David twirls through life constantly finding new rhythms to dance to. It’s not just about switching from tango on the East Coast to Taiwanese jitterbug on the West Coast! We’re talking about new interests and the passion he approaches them with.

In the last three years he learned 2,000 Chinese characters and became good friends with a mysterious Mr Yu…how did that happen and what came of it?

By David Duval

Dancer at the Core

I’ve been involved in dancing since my early 20s. Back when I lived on the East Coast I taught swing classes to groups of around 100 people in a place called the Swingers Palace. I also performed in entertainment venues like the Tutu Tango Cafe, where you dance while people eat. It was always a bit of extra income.

Dancing has been a core part of my life since then. In the early days of learning I was fully focused on the topic, I incorporated many different ways of practice: I watched videos, memorised step lists, listened to dancing music, practiced both in the studio and at home! The same approach proved very useful later on, when I started learning Chinese.

At that time, dance was just my side activity. The first “real” job I had was at a printing press. However, I quickly saw that it had no future. Computers were the future. It was with that conviction that my wife and I went into software.

I kept dancing though. We started taking classes together and soon started competing in ballroom dancing. We’ve been doing that for 10+ years and eventually got to be one of the top 50 couples in the USA! At the same time we combined the passion for dancing with the computer-focused view. We developed software to help manage dance studios, and the business is doing quite well!

I continue working as a dance instructor too. It’s very healthy to have personal contact with people, and dancing has always helped me feel like there are people my life. I have to admit, it makes me feel important too. When I explain and people listen to me, it makes me feel like I know what I’m talking about.

Sharing my expertise gives me a sense of confidence.

Starting Steps in Chinese

Just like dancing was an entry point to a successful software business, it was also through dancing that I developed an interest in Chinese. The dance school I teach at is in Chinatown and we get a lot of Chinese students. When I show the steps I sometimes need a lady to help me demonstrate. The first thing I was taught by my Chinese students was to say Qīn’ài de guòlái, 亲爱的,过来), “Honey come over here!

When I realised we won’t go much further with dancing I thought “why not start learning Chinese?” My daily life was already embedded in Chinatown. When I go to the studio I typically hang out in the district for a bit longer: get a foot massage, go to a hairdresser, or to the bookstore. There are more people there that speak Chinese than English, and many speak no English whatsoever.

Apart from being a great place to eat, it also makes Chinatown the perfect place to practice.

Feeling the Beat of Chinese

The first thing I noticed about Chinese language was that it intimidated many people because of its writing system. To prevent developing a similar fear, I decided I’d be writing everyday. HelloTalk stores a perfect record of this decision! It’s now been nearly there years of almost daily posts.

I also write by hand in the same squared notebooks Chinese students use at school. It makes it easy to calculate how any characters I’ve written to date. With 15 x 22 squares per page it’d make it…60,000 characters!

A page from David’s notebook. Can you count all the characters?

Reading too has been instrumental for my progress. By my best estimates I now know 2,000 characters. When I learn a new word, I’s look up practice sentences to write, and after that I’d practice speaking.

Thanks to HelloTalk, I’m able to have a running history of my learning progress.

Chinese Pirouettes and Pivots

A pivotal person for my progress has been Yuki, a friend from HelloTalk. There was a time she’d send me a Chinese joke every day! I’d practice saying it until I was quick enough to fit in the 60 second recording limit on HelloTalk. They were quite popular my Moments. Other people who I can count on have both very high level of English and experience in education, Lily and Tiffany. I know they would always be able to provide detailed explanations.

As was the case with dancing I try to incorporate as many Chinese-related activities as I can into my life, and one of them is listening to music and singing. I remember when the language “clicked” for me. One day, when listening to a song “The Moon Represents My Heart” I was struck by emotion—I really understood the lyrics.h

It’s only more than a handful of people who I speak to on HelloTalk regularly. It’s tough to be getting so many requests and only be able to help a limited number of learners. I try to leverage Moments to give back to the community. While one-on-one practice is always more beneficial for the individual, one Moment reaches many more people.

It’s the same with dancing classes. I teach to groups—now maybe 65% in English and 35% in Chinese—but I keep getting requests for one-on-one classes. Many of these requests now come from Chinese ladies who don’t just want to learn to dance, but also…practice their English with me! I also got requests to teach Chinese dances, like the Taiwanese jitterbug.

Dance Leader Meets a Chinese Leader

Through one of my students I met a gentleman by name of Mr Yu. Mr Yu and his family have a prospering Sichuan restaurant in Chinatown. Once I got invited to his restaurant for dinner and, unexpectedly, I found myself sitting with his friends in the back room and then not having to pay anything. And it was a $50-100 meal!

We spoke Chinese, of course, and then went on to do karaoke in Mr Yu’s office. Everyone was surprised I could sing Chinese songs. Since then, I’ve been a regular guest at the restaurant.

Mr Yu also happens to be involved in the formation and continuance of the LA Chinese Choir. After all these karaoke events I got invited to be the first non-Chinese member of the choir in the history of its existence! It’s a big honour. At the first rehearsal I had to stand up in front of everyone and introduce myself in Chinese. I’m pleased to say I can also understand 90% of what the other singers are saying.

Keep Dancing Along

Whether it’s dancing or Chinese, the path to progress is quite similar. A lot of people think if they practice for just 30 min once a week they will learn. It’s not gonna work! You have to find a lot of activities you enjoy and, for a start, commit to something little to do every day—even if it’s just writing one sentence.

I have learned 2,000 characters and wrote 60,000, but I know it’s still just the beginning. I continue surrounding myself with the language and finding new ways to practice: whether it’s trying to read 拉普拉斯的魔女 , “Laplace’s Witch”, a detective novel by Higashino Keigo, or…studying in the bathroom where I also keep notes with characters!

David is really devoted to improving his Chinese!

Before learning Chinese I had several misconceptions about the Chinese people. Moving to California, where I live now, showed me how wrong I was! I didn’t understand Chinese history before, now I see the motivating factors behind who the people are.

I’d say I found them more like me than different.

From initial immersion, to personal contact, to recognition and performance, David followed the same path in his dance career and in his Chinese learning.

His message to beginner learners of Chinese?

In the first few months it will be natural that you’re a little slow, that you’re not getting it. Pick simple activities that you can easily accomplish regularly and do them consistently. Maybe even just keep writing one sentence, until you nail it. First few sentences are the most difficult, after that it only gets easier.

Follow David’s learning progress on HelloTalk!

Interviewed and written by Marta Krzeminska

Feature image by Tim Gouw from Pexels.