Culture

Why are Chinese grandmas so into square dancing?

Jun 21, 2019

Walk into any public park or square in China, and you’ll probably find groups of retirees—usually older women—dancing in unison to deafeningly loud music.

It’s called guangchangwu 广场舞, or square dancing, and it’s been a phenomenon in China for decades.

Morning dancing in Shanghai’s People’s Square in 1999.
Morning dancing in Shanghai’s People’s Square in 1999. / Photo: Imagine China

For many residents who live near a square, these dancing grannies are little more than a public nuisance.

But for the women, it’s a way to feel connected and make friends. They not only dance in groups, but also travel and even make investment strategies together.

When the price of gold plunged in April 2013, for example, Chinese grannies shocked the world by collectively purchasing 300 tons of gold worth $14 billion in 10 days.

The phenomenon prompted The Wall Street Journal to describe this generation of Chinese women as a primary force influencing the global gold market.

Women dressed as soldiers dance together at a park in Beijing in this photo from 2017.
Women dressed as soldiers dance together at a park in Beijing in this photo from 2017. / Photo: Reuters

In China, the word for them, dama 大妈, now not only refers to the women, but also the phenomenon of panic buying.

How square dancing came to be

The craze for communal dancing can be traced back to the 1990s, when tens of millions of people lost their jobs at state-owned companies as China was adopting more capitalist practices.

“They had plenty of time but little money.”

Prof. Huang Yongjun

“They had plenty of time but little money,” says Huang Yongjun, a professor at Hunan Normal University who surveyed more than 1,000 square-dancing women between 2012 and 2014. “They had a strong desire for health and entertainment but lacked public facilities.”

Thus, dancing in public parks became a low-cost form of entertainment and exercise for many women who lost their jobs.

A dancing teacher leads a group at a park in Beijing in 1988.
A dancing teacher leads a group at a park in Beijing in 1988. / Photo: China Foto Press

It was also a good way to replicate the communal feeling of rural farms and villages, which many had left to settle in big cities.

“Interest especially heated up in the late 2000s, when the Chinese government called for a nationwide fitness program to welcome the Beijing Olympics in 2008,” Huang adds.

Public dancing in Ruichen, Shanxi province, in 2012.
Public dancing in Ruichen, Shanxi province, in 2012. / Photo: China Foto Press

But the practice of communal dancing can be traced even further back, says Mi Li, a professor at Central South University and one of Huang’s co-researchers, to the social environment and experiences of the women’s youth.

“They worship collectivism.”

Prof. Mi Li

“Most square dancers are older Chinese women between the ages of 50 and 60,” she says. “Their childhood and teenage years overlapped with the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and ’70s.”

During that time, people were encouraged to favor collectivism and the well-being of others over individualism and self-interest. That generation of Chinese grew up participating in marches and political demonstrations in public squares.

A group of girls chant at a rally in this photo from 1971.
A group of girls chant at a rally in this photo from 1971. / Photo: Alamy

“It left a deep impression on a generation of Chinese women,” Mi says. “They worship collectivism.”

“That’s why they’re so interested in square dancing,” Huang adds. “In the square, they can strongly feel the sense of presence and safety with others.”

Public nuisance?

But the women’s feeling of collective pride is also running into conflict with modern sensibilities of privacy and quiet.

Urban residents who live near public parks say the noise is disturbing their sleep and distracting children from their homework.

It’s gotten so bad that some cities have banned square dancing in certain areas. Some grannies have taken it upon themselves to use headphones as to not distract people who live in the vicinity.

These women in Chongqing use MP3 players to quietly listen to their dance music.
These women in Chongqing use MP3 players to quietly listen to their dance music. / Photo: Pear Video

Still, some people—like 54-year-old Zhu Ming, who dances daily in the southern city of Shenzhen—believe it is their right to dance as they wish in public spaces.

“It makes me feel young and happy,” Zhu says. “People our age dance, talk, and feel good together here. No one can stop us from dancing in the square.”

Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.

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Producer: Christine Schindler

Videographer: Christine Schindler

Editor: Hanley Chu

Mastering: Victor Peña

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