Every day at 7 pm, old-fashioned music fills Hongkou Football Stadium as more than 100 people sway to the beat.
The dancers, mostly women, stand in rows and perform a series of simple but well-timed moves. Two steps forward. Two steps back. Turn around. And clap. They repeat this routine until the music coming through a set of portable loudspeakers stops.
“Hei!”, they shout together, as an expression of encouragement and, perhaps triumph.
“Guang chang wu”, or public group dancing, has become a popular form of exercise at town squares and stadiums in nearly every Chinese city. The authorities began promoting it in recent years as a way to create more civilized, interactive communities and to encourage more elders to exercise.
Shanghai has extended the opening hours of 66 parks in summer, so more can continue dancing at night, in the open air.
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HEALTH AND HAPPINESS
For 72-year-old Qian Mingyue, dancing is the highlight of his daily routine. He organizes a dance group in the city’s People’s Park, learning his choreography from programs he found online, and now, he teaches other people how to dance.
Since he began dancing two years ago, Qian’s waistline has shrunk from 87 cm to 73 cm, and one of his fellow dancers, Wang Xiaofang, 66, has lost 15 kg.
Staying fit is not the only reason group dancing in public has become popular.
Some see it as a chance to expand their social life, kill the boredom of retirement, instead of just sitting at home, cooking and watching TV. Most of the dancers are older empty nesters whose adult children have moved away to lives of their own.
Liang Pinghua, 62, dances in a plaza near her community twice a day — two hours early in the morning and two hours again at night.
She is in charge of all the dancing props such as paper fans, balls, silk scarves, and the music.
“Sometimes I spend my afternoons teaching newcomers,” says Liang, whose son is married and has his own apartment. “I feel time passes so quickly, and I am happily occupied.”
Liang proudly recalls her granddaughter once saying, “Grandma, you are even busier after you retired.”
Yu Hai, a sociology professor at Fudan University, says dancing is good for older people for a variety of reasons.
“The dancers, mostly retired people, no longer have to take care of their children, so they have more leisure time. Through dancing, people can improve their health, expand their social network and develop a positive attitude.”
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But all is not that rosy. Group dancing has its darker sides.
Loudspeakers used for the music has angered some residents, who have complained about the noise. There have also been fights among the dancers themselves.
Earlier this month, an elderly man in Shanghai’s Minhang district stabbed another old man for stepping on his toes during a square dance session. His victim later died from his wounds.
In other provinces, residents angry at the loud noise have poured gasoline on dancers.
Others brought their own loudspeakers, to try to drown out the competition. One person even threw a large python at a group of dancers.
In Beijing, a man fired a gun and unleashed his Tibetan Mastiff on a group of dancers last summer.
Yu calls all these incidents manifestations of “a moral defect in the Chinese culture”.
Local governments have tried to contain the noise.
According to Shanghai regulations, there is a “sound curfew” between 10 pm and 6 am when no musical instruments or audio equipment are allowed to be played in parks and public spaces near “noise-sensitive areas” such as schools, hospitals and hotels. Offenders face a fine of up to 500 yuan ($80).
The regulation took effect early last year, and Qian’s group was forced to move from a square on Nanjing Road, near Shanghai’s most bustling shopping center, to their current location at People’s Park.
Some areas such as Zhongshan Park on Changning Road have set decibel meters to monitor the volume of music. The numbers on the screen flicker between 60 and 70, and remind dancers to keep the volume under 70 decibels.
Qian says outdoor spaces are popular among the elderly because of a lack of indoor facilities in Shanghai for exercise.
“Outdoor spaces are wide and open, and there are no fees for using these areas,” Qian says. “Besides, it is easier to attract new members.”
A doorman at the Radisson Hotel across from People’s Park, where Qian’s group meets, says most visitors enjoy watching guang chang wu. Sometimes they take photos and even join the dancing.
Young people, though, are not so enthusiastic.
“The music is old-fashioned, and so are the moves,” says Ge Yan, a university student. Ge says her parents have joined a guang chang wu group but this form of recreation holds no interest for her.
Qian doesn’t listen to the detractors.
“Those who like group dancing will approve of it, while nothing can please those who dislike it.”
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SO WHAT IS it all about
Guang chang wu originates from folk dances popular in rural communities, where the whole village may joyously join in during important festivals. During the “cultural revolution” (1966-76), group “loyalty dances” were used to express loyalty to Chairman Mao. It has evolved in the 80s to include disco and ballroom dancing choreography, making guang chang wu even more popular.
Group dancing is now practiced more as a way to exercise and keep fit, mostly by groups of middle-aged and elderly men and women. Most are retirees. Under China’s labor regulations, most civil servants retire at 50 to 55 for women, and 60 for men.
The music used for the dances are mainly catchy pop songs with an upbeat rhythm, and some have become very popular.
Popular songs include those from the grassroots duo Legend of The Phoenix. The most recent hit is Little Apple by the Chopsticks Brothers.
“Sometimes I spend my afternoons teaching newcomers. I feel time passes so quickly, and I am happily occupied.”
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By XU Xiaomin and YANG Yuqing
Published on China Daily Website
July 25, 2014