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Hip To Be Square

Over 110 million Chinese people are over 65, and a huge chunk of them have taken to public square dancing: complete with boom boxes, routines, and noise complaints from the grumpy, hard-working young people. Tessa Humphrys investigates the Suzhou guang chang wu dama scene. 

WORDS – Tess Humphrys
21.08.2017

It is evening in the city of Suzhou. Despite the heat of mid-summer not yet having faded, residents of this six-million strong city in east China are out on the streets in force. 

In the central courtyard area of a vast, modern apartment block, dozens of middle-aged and elderly residents, women mostly, gather around a sound-system blasting out upbeat Chinese pop. With a leader at the front they dance in unison, energetic, quick choreography with moves that take skill and are evidently well rehearsed. Those who do not know the steps well linger at the back, shimmying and gesticulating slightly behind the beat. Others stand idly by, watching as the ensemble grows larger to reach nearly 40 people. These are the local guang chang wu dama – literally square dancing grannies – and it is a scene replicated in the grounds of apartment compounds and in parks all around the city, and in villages, towns and cities across this huge country.

They do it because they can; the streets are safe and at night-time belong to everyone. The darkened city is not a threatening place for the middle-aged and elderly, instead it is a giant dance floor upon which to strut their stuff. 

The dancing is also a social support in a country where cities are large, apartment blocks anonymous, and people frequently move to find work or support family. 

Li Caiyun, 62, moved to Suzhou to help her son and his wife look after their new baby. She felt isolated in a new city.

“I don’t have any friends here,” she says. “Joining the square dance group was a good way to make friends, especially at my age. I chose to join square dance rather than other activities because it’s simpler. I have no dancing skills so square dance gives me no pressure.”

dancing grannies china
Daniel Chase (licence)

Jin Yijuan, 55, doesn’t dance herself, but she enjoys watching them and appreciates the fact apartment compounds have space for group activities.

“Newly developed compounds all have some open space, and although it may actually be for other purposes, it gives our older people a place to do group activities,” she says. “Property management does not stop them as long as it all finishes by 9:30pm and I’m happy these activities can take place.”

Square dancing is now so popular, and some of the dancers so skilled, that national television network CCTV and the country’s National Bureau of Sport organise nationwide square dance competitions every year. There are even new university degree programmes on how to design square dances.

But it’s not all positive, and square dancing has met with criticism. In a reversal of the situation found in many other countries, it is often the young in China who complain about the noise these raucous elders make while dancing on the streets, playing bad pop music loudly, late at night. Then there are the media stories of senior delinquency, of square dancers behaving badly, muscling others out from using the limited open spaces.

dancing grannies chinaN509FZ (licence)

In addition, others of their own age see square dancing as somehow at the bottom of an exercise hierarchy, that with its loud music and mob-like tendencies it lacks the etiquette of other forms of exercise. 

“No no no, I’ll never join square dancing,” says Wu Ling, 64, who is a fan of going to the gym and doing yoga. “It’s too noisy. And their purposes are not pure. They square dance just to gossip whereas I want to work out, keep healthy, and have professional trainers teach me.”

The social aspect of the activity may also give square dance participants an opportunity to engage in another group activity popular amongst certain groups of Chinese parents – matchmaking.

“I’m so happy that my mom doesn’t do square dancing,” says Li Haifang, 31. “I heard complaints from friends whose parents go to square dance and ask around to arrange blind dates for them, without asking! My god, I will pay for my mother’s gym membership to avoid her doing that!”

Tonight in Suzhou, however, all is calm, and disputes with the square dancers look unlikely. They have their patch and others - ballroom dancers, people playing badminton, a group doing tai chi - have theirs. The city as a giant playground, with compound security guards and local police as the teachers trying to ensure fair play.

Additional reporting: Wang Jing. 

suzhouiStock / miao99

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