IAIN LAFFERTY: The Art of street disco

Recently, proceeding up Hiram’s Highway enjoying an early morning run, an elderly man walking his dog overtook me and this edifying incident has forced a change in the way I think about exercise. I appreciate that age has transformed my running style from a confident purposeful stride, into a hunched shuffle, like Richard the III traversing the Shakespearean stage. So in mixed company I now describe myself as a “jogger” rather than a “runner.” I also prefer to jog in the mornings (a juvenile hang-up from too many years as a paperboy) and from this increasingly pedestrian vantage point I have been fortunate enough to be able to study that great Hong Kong institution of Street Disco.

If you are not familiar with the term, Street Disco describes a wide spectrum of early morning outdoor calisthenic behaviour that ranges from the strict discipline of Tai Chi through to synchronised aerobics and freeform avant-garde ballet. At sunrise all sorts of esoteric physical exercise can be seen, that at any other time of day would be met with little understanding and perhaps even challenged by the long arm of the Sai Kung constabulary. Where else in the world can you dance around a park at dawn dressed in a pair of Kung Fu pyjamas, brandishing a metre long Samurai sword and be regarded as nothing out of the ordinary? If you did this in London you’d be shot.

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Despite growing out of a culture that is more often associated with rules and rigidity, Street Disco has surprisingly few conventions. Outside of the synchronised form I have never seen two practitioners executing the same moves and each individual has their own unique style and repertoire. For instance one may see a man stretching who appears to be simultaneously in the grip of a mild epileptic fit, while close by an old lady spins wildly with the grace and balance of a high velocity ballroom dancer.

At its best Street Disco can be quite beautiful and its ubiquitous presence along the Sai Kung waterfront is a serene sight to behold. However, there is one branch of the art form that I cannot abide and they are the purveyors of outdoor karaoke. Howling at the rising sun like wolves barking at a full moon they terrorise the neighbourhood and all who dare to be out of bed at this time in the morning. I saw one such enthusiast windmilling both arms as he stood rigidly looking out to sea while singing the Whitney Houston classic “Saving all my love for you.” And while he remained insulated from the sonic vandalism he was creating, by headphones the size of dinner plates, I felt like my human rights were being abused.

Fortunately most Street Disco artists work alone and in silence, acting out their own slow motion gymnastic mime, oblivious to any external judgement or criticism. It is then from this transcendental state that the mind is able to wander the back alleyways of the subconscious, performing the cerebral housework necessary to maintain good mental health. This is partly the reason why people in such a crowded environment as Hong Kong still manage to get along. And so it is for everyone’s benefit that Street Disco not only survives but develops as the city becomes ever more busy and stressful.

I will continue to jog and maintain a casual interest in this most artistic of all exercises, perhaps looking to take a more active roll when my knees finally give up. This will give me time to develop my style and work on a few moves of my own. Perhaps I could combine a slow jog, with a bit of Tai Chi arm swinging and some mild meditation. Or will I then have simply turned into a “walker?”

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