BEIJING, April 18 -- As one of America's most famous cheerleading troupes performed at a park in downtown Shanghai on Friday morning, puzzled bystanders were more likely to associate it with the city's new flagship Barbie store than flourishing Sino-U.S. ties.
Waving pompoms and gyrating in blue and white costumes and replete with white cowboy boots, the official dance troupe of the Dallas Cowboys (a National Football League team) practiced tai chi with elderly Chinese, and swapped dancing tips with hua-gu (flower drum) dancers.
"We're hoping to mix our cultures a little bit," said Meagan Sharp, 20. "We're going to give them our pompoms and let them play around and see what they can take from us, and maybe try to add our power and punch to their gracefulness."
The girls, who go by the moniker America's Sweethearts, are as famous as it gets in cheerleading circles. They have at least two movies named after them - the first starring Jane Seymour in 1979 - as well as a recent reality TV show called "Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders: Making the Team".
While their forebears performed for the U.S. troops in South Korea to celebrate Christmas in 1979, the troupe had never visited China - until American Airlines (AA) flew them over to celebrate its third anniversary in China.
The aim of the weeklong jaunt, which ends on Saturday, is to break down cultural and other barriers using sports and entertainment as a hammer, said Victor Lee, AA's Greater China regional director.
"It's good to get people from our home base in Dallas to mix with people here," he said. "On a broader level, all kinds of sports can be without borders, and we want to show how everyone can participate and enjoy them, even if they cannot understand or play them."
Similar to Major League Baseball's historic China debut a year ago - when the San Diego Padres played a two-game series against the Los Angeles Dodgers in Beijing - the emphasis was on fun and cultural integration.
Lee said the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders (DCC) were made for Shanghai, if not made in Shanghai.
"They are full of passion, enthusiasm and energy, and Shanghai has that kind of character in China. It's a booming city looking to the future, and the people are very receptive to this kind of cultural impact," he said.
Three-year veteran American Sweetheart Tobie Percival, who put China on her to-do list after watching last year's Beijing Olympic Games, was shocked at the sight of metropolitan Shanghai.
"I wasn't expecting all the skyscrapers," she said. "I was thinking more like this park, kind of more greenery and trees, that kind of thing. But no matter which direction you look in, there's a high rise."
Whitney Isleib, 21, said she could see cheerleading taking off here in a big way as China starts to integrate U.S. trends with its own.
"I definitely think it could get incorporated into Chinese sports. I think the Chinese would love to learn cheerleading. I mean, I saw their kicks. They're getting pretty high."
"We'll definitely have some competition in the future."
China sent its first modern cheerleading squads to an Olympics when it played host in August. It is also starting to branch out from the traditional State-led sports system by embracing the U.S. college sports model, a move being pioneered by Beijing's Tsinghua University.
Percival said the squad would be taking home more than just the cuddly blue Shanghai Expo 2010 mascots they got during a gift exchange with the local drum dancers, some of whom were in their late 60s.
"We'll try to incorporate as much of what they do as we can. It's definitely amazing to blend different cultures and traditions into what we do, because we like to be diverse and include everybody," she said.
The DCC's maiden appearance in China was, to all intents and purposes, an unqualified success.
"This is quite different from Chinese culture," said Fan Guangfa, a middle-aged Chinese man who climbed up a lamppost to get a better view. "But I wish they would come here more often."
Some things got lost in translation, but the message of cultural exchange, however garbled, ultimately made its way to the masses.
"Wow," said one man from Xi'an, Shaanxi province, who was carrying his grandson on his shoulders. "American Airlines' stewardesses are really stunning, aren't they?"
When the toddler grows up, the difference between the two will no doubt be much clearer.
(Source: China Daily)