With a decade in the history books, the Soojin Dance Team is synonymous with ‘best cheerleading in China.’ Now the country’s best are working to become better.
Soojin Cho stands looking at the stereo system inside her Jianwai SOHO dance studio, bouncing her weight from one foot to the other. Her shoulders pop every so often with the heavy bass of Beyonce’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” blaring throughout the room. It is one of the rare moments she has to herself, and she dances through the piece she will have her dance team run through most of Saturday.
The members of the team trickle in beginning at 10 a.m. Cho pays them no mind. She’s got a routine to run through, and she’s making the most out of a moment she nearly never gets to enjoy nowadays.
“I’m too old to be performing with the women,” she says, laughing. “I watch basketball games now, I’m not part of the cheerleading squad. Spectators want to see young women, not me.”
A decade ago, Cho started the first professional dance team in China. Now the country has hundreds of teams to choose from, but the Soojin Dance Team is recognized as the best squad in the People’s Republic, a team that is sought after nearly every time a professional sporting event takes place on the mainland.
MLB, NFL, NBA, FIFA World Cup — check. China Basketball Association, where Cho was the national director of cheerleading between 2002 and 2005 — check. 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, where Cho was the chief advisor and choreographer for all sports venue performances, a nice title that means she was in charge of some 300 cheerleading squads that were flown in from all over China to perform during the Beijing events — check.
Cho is the mother of modern cheerleading in China. The South Korean who immigrated to China in 1994 to continue with higher education started a dance aerobics program only to be the one to change the face of cheerleading. But Cho’s story has also been told, several times. In early January 2008, China Daily ran a story on the history of Soojin Dance Team. And in December 2008, CCTV’s People television program followed the team in the run-up to the Olympic Games.
In a performance sport such as cheerleading, where a group acts as one moving unit, it is easy to single out Cho. She’s the coach. She speaks for the team. But this is about a team that is in the midst of redesigning its identity and turning the best dance team in the country into its most professional. This is about a group of women that show an unconditional love for dance when they step out on the floor, giving nothing less than everything in the name of teamwork. This is about working the hardest, training the most and truly understanding what dedication means. It is not about Cho, but about the women she is training and the future she wants for them.
Where the Unit Becomes One
Two women stand facing a group of about 30 cheerleaders. They are tasked with dancing in front of the Soojin Dance Team. That’s the test one must go through in order to make it on Cho’s squad. Team members line up against the mirrored wall every Wednesday if there are new women trying out and vote on a slip of paper whether or not potential dancers make the cut. It is a democratic system, and one that takes into account more than just skill.
“It is based on both moves and attitude,” says Cho. “And here, attitude is everything. If they look like they have a poor or arrogant attitude when standing in front of the group, the girls are not going to accept them.”
Both women will end up making the team.
Joining Soojin Dance is just the start for those looking to stand toe-to-toe with everyone else on the squad. Every Monday and Wednesday the team undergoes two-hour evening practices. Saturday is a five-hour practice. Additionally, if a cheerleader has worked hard and showed dedication, they could be asked to travel to other cities across China for events. At the Wednesday evening tryouts, 10 team members are in Qingdao and three other cheerleaders are in Tianjin.
This isn’t even a full-time job. All of the women currently on the Soojin team do something else other than cheerleading. They’re students and waitresses, bond traders and yoga teachers. And when the workday is over, they step out on the dance floor and don’t even think twice about complaining.
“I am involved in finance and there is a lot of stress involved,” says Liu Qinning. “I need something exciting in my life. I love dancing and this is so much more relaxing than my normal job.”
The 33-year-old sits maybe once or twice during breaks, but like most of the other women on the team, she stays on her feet trying to stick a certain portion of the song before the group gets back together to practice. Resting just isn’t in the team’s vocabulary.
One of the hardest workers on the team also happens to be a captain. When Cho halts the team for not being together or for one member not getting a particular move correct, 34-year-old Zheng Yi will be the first to fall in line with Cho to rerun through the move, maneuvering her way over to that member who needs a little extra help and demonstrating just how the routine goes. It is a silent, motivational push by the captain.
“That’s one of the reasons she is the captain,” says Cho. “She is someone who dancing did not come naturally to, but she pushes harder to get all the moves right. And that says something about character.”
From the Practice Studio to the Dance Floor
“Do you think I am dancing well?” asks Zhou Xiao Ting while walking over during one of the short breaks they’re given in between 40-minute Saturday practice sessions. She’s breathing heavy but trying not to show it. “I just started dancing here, so I don’t think I am dancing as well as the others.”
The 19-year-old from Inner Mongolia stands toward the back when it comes to running through the songs. With two weeks under her belt, she’s finding her place next to the more experienced women. Eventually, Zhou will have the more than 40 dance routines the Soojin Dance Team is expected to know memorized without thinking twice about it.
“My girls love cheerleading, they’re serious when it comes to training,” says Cho. “There are many cheerleading teams in China, but many do not have good teachers or experience.”
Recently, several women who’d been on the team for more than five years switched squads, a practice Cho says rarely happens in cheerleading. Several other team members had to be let go for not following team policies. What Zhou and the newer women represent is renewal in a team that is becoming more professional with every performance.
From the Dance Floor to Center Stage
It could be considered the first day of real spring weather in Beijing, and nine members of the Soojin Dance Team are inside the Shangri-La Hotel about to hit the stage for the CCTV 5 press conference for the 2010 Asian Games to be held in Guangzhou next year.
The line up on either side of the stage where several other performers — singers, dancers, musical performers — will give their best for the television cameras over the next two hours. The Soojin Team has been pushing extra hard this past week, and all that work boils down to about two minutes of dancing on stage.
“We’ve prepared really well for this event,” says Ma Yuan Zheng, one of Soojin’s dancers. “We’re always a little nervous before a performance. And we consider an event such as this just as important as any other event we’d normally do.”
The 25-year-old Ma spent the first half of the day greeting those attending the press conference, more than 150 spectators and credentialed media. Now she stands next to the metal frames around the stage, and when Beyonce comes through the speakers Ma and the rest of the squad’s moves become secondary nature. It is quick. Punchy. And then it is over.
The team splinters after their performance, some stand next to the stage and cheer on speakers before and after their speeches, others head back to the changing rooms around the corner and switch in-and-out with the cheerleaders who stay behind. The captain stays on the floor the whole time, her silent motivation toward the rest of the team.
Making a Lasting Impression
Cho and her team are looking into more opportunities in 2009 — including more performances with the CBA. But nothing is set. According to Cho, the team can get asked to do performances sometimes a week in advance, and the schedule is always shifting. But Cho says that the team will see more performances this year than any other year. And in 2010, with both the Asian Games and the Shanghai World Expo coming to the mainland, Cho says her team will have plenty of opportunities to dance.
Either way, Liu, Zheng, Zhou, Ma and the other members will know they’re ready for center stage, no matter where the event is held. They know because they’ve put in the work together. They know because they work harder. They know because they see what it takes to make the best better, and each day brings them all one step closer.
“We dance together, we cry together, we share in each other’s happiness,” says Liu. “And while the performance is important, the most important thing is our health and our camaraderie. And we have that.”
— Zachary Franklin
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