Ribbon Rhythm

On campus with Zhengli Lim (Research Postgraduate, Mechanical Engineering).

Photography: Emli Bendixen

Zhengli performing on Dangoor Plaza during his lunch break.

People tell me my ribbon dancing looks very graceful from a distance. From my perspective, though, it’s complete chaos. I have no formal dance or gymnastics training. I like just feeling the music.

When I was 18 I discovered that I liked to dance at nightclubs. Years later, I thought, ‘This is fun, but what if I spice it up?’ I tried different things – a pilates bar, a gymnastics ball – and eventually ended up with this ribbon on a stick and it felt like it was meant for me. Now I don’t need to go clubbing – the Dangoor Plaza at Imperial is perfect.

Because of the chaos, it’s the ideal spot for my practice – it’s open with plenty of space, so there’s less chance of hitting anyone. I hope that nowadays I have enough control to avoid that, but it hasn’t always been the case. When I was first starting, the balance between my power and precision was a bit off. The stick can fly up to 30m away if you lose your grip, and although I’ve never injured anyone, I once knocked a seagull out of the sky. That was in Hyde Park. I heard a squawk then looked down and saw a seagull splashing into the pond outside Kensington Palace. I was relieved it didn’t die, it was just a bit dazed.

Fortunately there aren’t many seagulls around Imperial, but there are plenty of people. The lawn can get busy, depending on the weather, and if it’s crowded, I won’t practise at full strength. Or I go elsewhere. Every time I exercise, a child or dog will show up and want to play with it. I’m used to it, so I always carry extra ribbons so that they can.

Although, if someone is watching, I don’t really notice. I just pick a patch of grass, stick in my earbuds and dance. I reach my top level of performance when I’m completely unaware of anyone else around me and it’s just for myself: when I’m in a flow state. I don’t reach that state very often but when I do, it feels great.

My PhD setup doesn’t require me to be on campus at all, but I go anyway because I like the ambience – I’ll either head straight to the lawn or the library. And I always have my ribbons with me; I never know when I might want to use them. On a good day I can be out for six hours. When I first started it was very exhausting, but you get used to it. And I need the practice: even now my skill is not at the level I want to be at, and there is so much more I can do.