Jennifer Gampell
868/75-76 Soi Vanich 2
Songwad Road
Bangkok 10100 Thailand
Tel/Fax: (662) 237-3362
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April 29, 1999

Vietnam's Doctor of Dance

By Jennifer Gampell

BANGKOK--At the Asian Games, as 27 couples from around the region waltzed, tangoed and sambaed their way into the annals of sport, a slight Vietnamese man studied the intricate steps from the sidelines.

While "dancesport"--better known in the non-competitive milieu as ballroom dancing-made its world debut as a demonstration event at a major international sporting, Nguyen Dung was making some history of his own. This was the first time the dance instructor from Hanoi had ever seen trained professionals perform the dances he loves. In fact until the dancesport competition drew him to Bangkok, he'd never been out of Vietnam.

Yet despite his lack of exposure to the glamorous world of competitive ballroom dancing, Mr. Dung (pronounced Zhoong) knew each step executed on the Bangkok dance floor that night, and could appreciate every nuance of technique. Twenty years ago, he began teaching himself dance routines by following diagrams and instructions in foreign how-to manuals. It was a pretty solitary pastime in socialist Hanoi. But now his years of "one, two, three; one, two, three" are finally paying off.

In August, Mr. Dung became the first Vietnamese member of the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing, a prestigious British organization with some of the toughest entrance standards in the world. Not bad for a man who's never had a dancing lesson in his life.

"I don't meet someone like Mr. Dung very often, not very often at all," says Marion Brown, the ISTD fellow who traveled to Vietnam just to administer the test to Mr. Dung. A former ballroom dancer herself, the genteel, middle-aged Englishwoman has been certifying dancers throughout the world for two decades. The examination includes 30 minutes of dancing and 75 minutes of rigorous technical description. It is conducted entirely in English. "Even English people usually take one or two years to train for the exam," Ms. Brown explains. "I only sent Mr. Dung the instructional materials this past March."

Then again, the 43 year-old Mr. Dung had spent most of his life preparing for the test. As a boy in Hanoi during the early 1960s, he learned rudimentary waltz and tango steps from his father, to the accompaniment of scratchy 78-rpm records. But the Vietnam War dashed Mr. Dung's first dreams of becoming a dancer. He spent the years between 1974 to 1976 as a soldier in the North Vietnamese Army. When the war ended, Vietnam didn't have much use for dancers. Sent to university to study medicine, Mr. Dung received his degree in 1983 and was posted to a state hospital in Hanoi.

Having to hang up his dancing shoes for a rifle and then a scalpel was bad enough. To make things worse, the Communists frowned upon modern dance. The only officially sanctioned dances were traditional Vietnamese folk routines.

Try as he might, though, Mr. Dung just couldn't get those waltz and tango rhythms out of his head. Late at night, in his tiny university dormitory, he would pore over "How to Dance," an American dance manual he picked up in a Saigon market in 1975. Each night, he would painstaking translate the book's English with a dictionary and silently follow the steps shown in the diagrams.

His breakthrough came in 1978, when the Vietnamese government finally loosened its policy on bourgeois dance. Apparently, a Vietnamese delegation attended a communist festival in Havana and saw Cuban dancers doing the Cha Cha. If ballroom dancing was not too decadent for Castro, they reasoned, it was not too decadent for Ho Chi Minh, either

But that wasn't the last obstacle that Mr. Dung would have to overcome. Because modern dance had been discouraged for so long, he couldn't find anyone who knew the fashionable current dances. The only ballroom dance teachers in Hanoi were people of his father's generation. "I wanted to learn the new styles of dance," says the soft-spoken Mr. Dung who, even when seated, carries himself with grace. But no teacher in Vietnam had seen a new step since 1945.

It wasn't until 1984 the Mr. Dung finally got his hands on an ISTD dance manual. Only there was another hitch; it was written in Czech! Driven by desperation for new information, he had it translated into Vietnamese. But where to get the music? Apart from a few black-market cassettes, most of the tunes available were hopelessly outdated. So Mr. Dung, ever the innovator, bought a guitar and some music books and d taught himself to play between shifts at the hospital. Even without music, Mr. Dung could always practice. "I can imagine the music," he explains today, placing his hand over his heart. "I feel the rhythms here."

In 1987 Mr. Dung married Do Minh Huyen, a fellow doctor who shares his love for ballroom dance. And as his reputation as a connoisseur of dance grew, friends asked for lessons. Alone or accompanied by his wife, Mr. Dung began teaching dance classes at night and on holidays. He charged 20 cents per student. While he found that teaching others was an excellent way of improving his own skills, it did not satisfy his growing hunger for dance theory.

In 1992, much to the dismay of his colleagues, Mr. Dung abandoned his medical career to study English and dance full time. Since then ballroom dancing has taken off in Vietnam, as it has in the rest of Asia, and demand for Mr. Dung's teaching expertise is high. Today he teaches classes all around Hanoi. Just about any night of the week--whether in a sweltering public hall, a corporate office, or a private home--Mr. Dung can be found doing what he does best: spreading the joy of ballroom dance. He has even set aside a seven-square meter area in his own home, where he gives private lessons.

Now, armed with his newfound status as an ISTD Associate and the connections he's made at the Asian Games, Mr. Dung is preparing to embark on his next Herculean task: the creation of the first-ever Vietnamese Dancesport Federation. With characteristic determination and poise, he shrugs off any notion of potential obstacles. "Dancing is one of the best medicines," he says. "I should know. I used to be a doctor."

Copyright 2000 Wall Street Journal