Here is what everyone knows about Bruce Lee (born Lee Jun-fan): Chinese-American actor, director, and one of the most popular martial arts instructors and philosophers. He is, by many accounts, the most influential martial artist of all time (founding Jeet Kune Do—“The Way of the Intercepting Fist”—a hybrid martial arts philosophy that combined Wing Chun, tai chi, street fighting, and boxing). As far as pop culture icons go, Bruce Lee is up there with the best of them.
His films are legendary: The Big Boss (1971), Fist of Fury (1972), Way of The Dragon (1972), Enter The Dragon (1973), and The Game of Death (1978). His on-screen persona is proud, feisty, but controlled and calm. He wins ten-on-one fights at a trot. And his muscles are so individually pronounced they probably applied for their own passports.
Here is what many people do not know about Bruce Lee: in 1958, he won Hong Kong’s Crown Colony Cha-Cha Championship.
Yep. Bruce Lee—the GOAT of GOATs—was a cha-cha dancer once upon a time.
For a curious, well-read, philosophically-inclined, and highly experimental martial artist who advocated for adapting to any situation by adopting fighting techniques from numerous combat disciplines, it makes sense Lee would find himself on a cha-cha dance floor.
Balance, timing, poise—these are just some of cha-cha’s gifts. Dancers know how and when to move their bodies; they have a keen grasp of their weight and how to distribute it across their footwork; they know when to flourish and when to be reserved; they understand the need for practiced and on-the-spot choreography; they possess an intimate feeling for rhythm and know how to temper their movements accordingly—quick-quick slow, quick-quick slow. Fighters do the same thing, but for different purposes. Perhaps this is why numerous martial arts practitioners refer to fighting as “dancing with death.”
In Way of The Dragon, Bruce Lee, playing Tang Lung, is sent to Rome to provide protection for a Chinese restaurant threatened by a crime boss. After repeatedly beating the various henchmen sent to dispatch him, Tang faces Colt, played by Chuck Norris, at the Colosseum. Initially, both fighters are evenly matched. However, as the fight progresses, Colt begins to dominate, landing several devastating combinations which knock Tang to the ground. For anyone familiar with martial arts films, this is the hier kom kak nou* moment when the is set for a great comeback.
Tang gets back to his feet, dusts himself off, adjusts his fighting and stance, and, directed by Joseph Koo’s soundtrack, begins the deadly dance with Colt. The mesmerising footwork allows him to evade Colt’s kicks and punches, sapping his energy in the process, and allowing Tang to turn the death-match around.
And who said dancing did not a great fighter make?
Even in the third instalment of the Ip Man series, a retelling of the life Ip Man, Bruce Lee’s legendary Wing Chun teacher, there is a scene in which Ip takes his dying wife to Lee’s studio to learn how to dance cha-cha while his ruthless challenger, the powerful Cheung Tin-chi (also known as Sum Nung) angrily waits for Ip to arrive for their no-holds-barred duel. By his absence, Ip Man forfeits the duel. Dancing, clearly, was way more important.
While not a dojo or martial arts school, The Salsa Club, as a collective of passionate dancers, finds some resonance in Bruce Lee’s belief that “the best fighter is someone who can adapt to any style.” Applied to the ever-changing world of Latin dancing and constantly expanding catalogue of music, the same philosophy encourages exploration, experimentation, and self-expression on any dance floor.
Bruce Lee passed on in 1973 at the age of 32, a tragedy for martial arts and film enthusiasts around the world. While his physical and acting prowess would go on to secure his iconic status, little is known about his time as a cha-cha dancer.
What is certain, though, is that no person of sane mind should ever tangle with someone who knows how to dance to the likes of Louis Ramirez, Ibrahim Ferrer, Chelo, the Quantic Soul Opera, and the Brooklyn Funk Essentials.
Chin Chon Chow—Louie Ramirez
Compositor Confundido—Ibrahim Ferrer
Cha-Cha — Chelo
Regi Bugalu—Quantic Soul Opera
Big Apple Boogaloo—Brooklyn Funk Essentials
*Afrikaans phrase, roughly translating to: “here comes trouble now.”
Cover Image: © Wikimedia Commons