China's 10-year-old hip hop dance sensation has the moves, but critics say she's being sexualised

China's 10-year-old hip hop dance sensation has the moves, but critics say she's being sexualised
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Watch her speak - such as during a recent appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, for example - and Amy Zhu seems like any other 10-year-old girl, albeit with hipper clothes.

But watch her dance and you see someone transformed: when the beats start, Zhu moves with the confidence, grace and attitude of someone three times her age.

Zhu is an archetypal star of the internet age. Her dance videos garner hundreds of thousands of views on social media platforms in China and the United States. But if her age helped her videos go viral, it is her sheer skill that has endeared her to the dance world and won her an army of followers across the globe.

As her fame has grown, however, she has also caught the eye of critics and detractors who decry what they see as the sexualisation of a little girl and say a child has no place in the world of hip-hop dancing.

Zhu, a native of Chengdu city in China's Sichuan province, starting dancing at the age of five after her mother signed her up for classes. But it wasn't until two years later that she started taking dance seriously. That was after attending a jazz dance class at Sinostage Studio, where she still trains.

"From that time, I wanted to dance all the time," Zhu says.

The next year she started studying urban dance in earnest, the style she is most associated with now, though Zhu jokingly refers to her personal style of dance as "Amy style".

Anyone worried that Zhu is trying to appear too "adult" would be reassured when talking to her. She is like any other happy 10-year-old girl, just one who happens to be an extremely talented dancer. While adults may read things into her dancing, for Zhu her relationship with dance is simple: "I am very happy when I dance," she says. "Dancing makes my life happier."

Even her growing notoriety doesn't seem to have had much effect on her life.

"I don't know that I am famous," she says laughing. "Every day, my life is still the same as before. I go to school and go dance after school.

"I was very nervous and excited to go to the United States for the first time [to appear on The Ellen DeGeneres Show]," she concedes, but what she remembers most was that "the American ice cream was especially delicious".

If Zhu is even aware of some of the critical comments her dance videos have received on social media, she doesn't seem to understand them, let alone be bothered by them. "It's OK to dance," is all she'll say about her critics. "As long as we like to dance, we will be fine!"

Photo: South China Morning Post 

Two of her videos in particular have raised the ire of more conservative internet commenters, both routines choreographed by French dancer and choreographer Yanis Marshall. Marshall is something of a hero to Zhu and their dances have been among the most popular videos she has shared on social media.

The two videos have raked in more than half a million views and nearly two thousand comments combined. Most of the comments are supportive, but some take the choreographer to task for what they see as an oversexed style which is inappropriate for such a young girl.

One commenter called the routine "sickening" and asked: "What has the world come to?"

Others comment directly to the child dancer herself on her Instagram page: "It's too sensual for a kid, from her outfit to her dance, please you are too young" - this about a video of her dancing in trainers, gym shorts and a cropped T-shirt; and "I thought Chinese [kids are] conservative. Oh my gosh this is sooo not appropriate for your age, dear!"

Zhu herself has stayed quiet about the controversy, but the choreographers who have worked with her have been more outspoken.

Writing on his Instagram page, Marshall does not mince his words. "Don't get me started with the 'She's too young for that' comments … that's her mother's problem not mine. My class is 16 years old and up. But I make an exception for her because she's special … I also tone it way down for her."

Los Angeles-based dancer and choreographer Julian DeGuzman also worked with Zhu when he travelled to China to teach classes at Sinostage. Only 17 years old himself, DeGuzman knows all too well the challenges of navigating the world of dance from a young age.

He says teaching Zhu was an experience that he will never forget.

"Amy's so cute, and so talented," he gushes. "At first when I met her I just thought, 'Oh my god she's so cute,' but then I was just blown away. As soon as she took my class I just thought, 'Wow, this girl is serious.'

"When I first saw her dance, I just saw maturity. What she could do was beyond her years. She was so focused. I just saw so much maturity there. When you're that age you just want to have a good time, so for me it was super inspiring to see someone that young be so focused and just so good."

DeGuzman says the people around her will keep her on the right track.

"In this industry, sometimes you can get turned the wrong way," he concedes. "But she's not going to take that path. She has amazing teachers who aren't going to teach her sexual stuff.

"She's far beyond her years, she knows what to do and what not to do. And she was raised right too - her mother is so supportive and always points her in the right direction."

Issues related to sexuality, youth and maturity are obviously complicated - more complicated than can be fruitfully explored in the comments section of an Instagram video.

But in Chengdu, Zhu's goals can't be more simple: "I just want to study hard and practise dance," she says.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post

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