Merge: The Shanghai Dance Studio that Bridges Cultures

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Partners in business and life, Andyfred and April.

Electric Afro-beats are pulsing through the tiny DinXi Road studio. An agile instructor is spinning around energetically while the class is filling up. Prim-looking business ladies  approach the dance-floor, surrendering to her hypnotic spell.

The owner of Merge Studio, who goes by the name April, has a warm personality and greets visitors with a hug. Her English accent is a delightful blend of Chinese and Latin, as a result of being fluent in Portuguese. Her partner in life and business, who introduces himself as Andyfred, has a natural strut in his step.   The pair organizes a variety of classes and festivals together, and the most prominent dances offered are Kizomba, Brazilian Zouk and Afro.

Kizomba is a dance that originates from the fast-paced Angolan Semba. The Semba was adapted to to suit slower Caribbean Zouk music, and that is how Kizomba was born. Brazilian Zouk has equally fascinating roots, in the sense that it is danced to Caribbean Zouk music, whilst the steps are mainly influenced by the infamous Brazilian dance, Lambada.

April finds these two dances interesting since dancers are not necessarily compelled to follow a regular eight rhythm. “You can always go out of rhythm, create your own thing and then come back to it.  So you can change the music, you can break down and put your own musicality and flavor into it, so for me it is very creative, it allows you to express in a way broader sense,” she explains.

April and Andyfred’s paths crossed for the first time in 2015 at a party in Shanghai. Both are passionate dancers, and to Andyfred, who is originally from Haiti, it came as a great surprise when he learned that April, who hails from Zhejiang Province, had such in-depth knowledge of Caribbean dancing, including Kompa, which is a dance he grew up with.  “She mentioned Kompa and I was like ‘what?’  Because usually in China when I say I’m Haitian, people don’t know where it is,” Andy says animatedly.

April’s passion for dancing was sparked while she was studying business at the prestigious Tsinghua University. During this time she took some Latin dancing classes, and on completion of her studies she decided to go to Brazil to broaden her knowledge of dancing.  This initially came as a disappointment to her family, who hoped she would pursue a career in banking or business like her other class mates.  “I needed something more. I was always moved by arts, culture and spiritual things,” she says.

After a year in Brazil, she returned to China, and opened Merge Studio in Shanghai. Although her family took a while to accept what April describes as her “mission” to balance the spiritual and material in China, her mother is now a proud investor in this venture.

Andyfred’s passion for dancing started at a young age.  After emigrating to the USA with his family from Haiti at the age of 15, he added classical dances such as ballet and tap to his repertoire.

A language enthusiast, Andy studied Chinese at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.  After graduation, he moved to China to improve his language skills.  In Shanghai, he initially worked as an English teacher, but eventually started teaching hip hop at April’s studio. “I came to China for more language but the dancing still found itself to me. And I met someone who was also passionate about languages, dancing and traveling; and sharing it with others.”

April and Andyfred are pleased with the outcome of the Kizomba Congress they recently hosted in Shanghai.  This was a weekend-long festival attracting people from all over the world.  During this congress, dance classes were led by professional instructors.  It ended with a competition.  At the end of a class they would record the instructors’ demo of the steps taught, so attendees could have videos to refer to in future.

In addition to a variety of workshops coming up in the near future, they are also planning to host the China Brazillian Zouk Congress from October 31 – November 4.  Twenty different teachers, including the founder of this dance, Renata Peçanha will be attending. April says the festival will take a similar format to the Kizomba congress: “Literally a weekend of non-stop learning, dancing and making new friends.”

Passionate about teaching, Andy finds it rewarding when a student experiences “that light bulb moment. Everybody has a different way to understand stuff: when you find that correct way to communicate with someone and things just click”.

April loves watching students with “two left feet” progress over a few months.  “You will literally see how their legs get stronger, they can hold their core and they understand the music.”

Helping people understand the music connects with April’s mission. Along with Andy, she educates people through various media to address this issue:

“I’ve been exposed to these kinds of cultures. I felt like in China we have a communication problem with the outside world.  I want to change that.  I want to be that bridge to link these cultures to introduce these amazing dances to China and introduce Chinese culture abroad as well,” she says.

Even though Chinese culture differs vastly from cultures within the African diaspora, April believes that these dances have universal appeal.  She explains:

“These music and dances were born from the slavery history.  And it was born from the resilience and that is why it has so much life force in it.”

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Connect with Merge on WeChat.

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