Aboriginal dancers take 'Zorba the Greek' to China

Lionel Dhulmanawuy, an Aboriginal dancer from a remote tropical island off northern Australia, points to his cracked lips and dry skin: Beijing's winter is "powerfully cold", he says.

Dhulmanawuy and his fellow Chooky Dancers, who became a YouTube sensation with a quirky "Zorba the Greek" number, left Australia for the first time in January to perform in China's televised Spring Festival gala, seen by millions.

China is a far cry from Elcho Island, where the men first developed their five-minute routine, which begins with a traditional dance with spears - and ends with the barefoot men wearing loincloths doing Greek-style gyrations.

Their videos have gone viral, with more than 1.8 million hits since 2007.

"Their eyes will be popping out of their heads," Gaymangura, one of the dancers, told AFP through a translator when asked how he thought the Chinese audience would react to seeing half-naked men covered in white body paint.

The Chooky Dancers spent nearly 20 hours in four planes to reach the Chinese capital to star in the annual gala, to be broadcast by Beijing Television to a massive viewing audience during Lunar New Year festivities on February 4.

While the men have been performing at festivals around Australia for several years and starred in the television show "Australia's Got Talent", Dhulmanawuy admitted he was nervous about dancing for millions of people.

"When we were rehearsing yesterday I was really, really shy thinking about how many people are going to be watching," he said in one of the dialects spoken on the island of 2,000 people, mostly Aborigines.

The glitzy gala will feature a range of local and international acts including Spanish flamenco dancers, a British child singer, a Swedish pianist and Russian girls wearing pink bunny ears and matching tutus.

"The Chooky Dancers are very strange and very humorous so it is very good for Chinese viewers," Shi Tao, director of the show, told AFP.

During their four days in Beijing, when temperatures hovered below the freezing mark, the men donned gloves and hats purchased at a supermarket to visit Tiananmen Square and then - a treat for the self-professed kung-fu fans - a martial arts show at a sports high school where the actor Jet Li studied.

"It's really great but too cold," Dhulmanawuy told AFP as he counted the five layers of clothing he was wearing inside the hotel.

"My eyes are cold and my teeth hurt. It hurts when I move my nose around."

The dancers, whose performance for the gala was pre-recorded, were invited to Beijing as part of the Year of Australian Culture in China, which is aimed at strengthening relations between the two countries.

These ties were severely strained last year when four Rio Tinto executives, including Australian passport holder Stern Hu, were jailed on bribery and trade secrets charges.

Josh Bond, the manager of the Chooky Dancers, hopes the Chinese audience likes their blend of traditional and Greek dance so much that they can come back later this year.

"Maybe they will be Australia's new export," Bond said.

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