By Maria Rincon, Angela Jie Wang, Natalie Meyer, and Margot Lambilliotte
It is 7:30 p.m. on a wintery, dark Monday evening in Beijing. Wang Qingli, a 63-year-old Chinese woman, has just left her apartment. Like most evenings, she is headed to meet six of her friends for a weekly practice session of guangchangwu dancing.
All over China, millions of elderly people meet on a daily basis to dance with groups in public places. Known as guangchangwu, or “public square dancing,” this social activity draws the attention of locals and foreigners alike.
According to Xinhua News Agency, there are 100 million retirees in China who belong to these groups, most of them being women. This gender majority has earned participants the affectionate street name of “the dancing grannies.” Usually gathering at night in parks, on the pavement or in public squares, they move their bodies in synch to lively Chinese pop music.
Guangchangwu is an affordable and inclusive activity; all ages are welcome, but some groups require auditions. The activity creates a sense of belonging for dancers, especially in today’s fast-paced, digitally-charged society. Guangchangwu allows the middle-aged and elderly to connect with a community and socialize with others their age.
“I wait for this moment every day. It is not only a way to exercise, but [also] to meet other people my age as well. Being retired can be difficult; we can easily feel lonely and useless. Now I feel like I belong to a community again. I tried to exercise on my own before, but that was different. With this group, we are like a big family,” says Wang.
Guangchangwu is one of the main ways that elderly Chinese people stay fit and healthy.
However, providing sufficient public facilities for these dancers continues to be a challenge for the Chinese government. This is why finding a permanent space to dance is an ongoing issue for guangchangwu groups.
Dancing grannies often have to fight over dance space in areas such as parks, shopping mall plazas, residential complexes, and parking lots. Some groups have had to become more creative with finding a place to dance; from construction zones and empty lots, to basements in buildings, and spaces under bridges.
“We try to get here as early as possible. Otherwise another guangchangwu group can steal our dancing spot. This happened last summer. Both groups were putting on their music louder and louder to try and make the other group go away.” says Huang Anxi, who is 69-years-old and has been dancing for seven years.
Performing in noisy environments is part of the routine for the dancing grannies who grew up listening to Chinese patriotic songs in public. However, not everyone in the neighborhood feels the same way about the loud music blasting from speakers.
Noise pollution complaints have continued to increase in the last few years. In 2015, the Beijing government decided to impose sanctions on some guangchangwu groups through fines or other kinds of penalties.
“For these reasons we try to stay discreet. We don’t like being filmed or being photographed. But we will never stop dancing. We only stop when there is pollution or bad weather because it is unhealthy to stay outside,” says Huang.
It seems that nothing can stop these dancing grannies. For them, belonging to a dance group is a way to take part in an outdoor and stimulating activity with several health benefits.
More than just a recreational activity, guangchangwu has been taken to another level by some dancing grannies. Guangchangwu competitions are held in many communities across China. The participants spend hours choreographing and rehearsing dance routines to compete on stage with costumes.
In Ningbo, Zhejiang, 70-year-old Mei Qin is part of a guangchangwu performing group who won first place in their community’s guangchangwu competition last year. Including Mei Qin, Sunshine Dance Group consists of 35 dancers that practice guangchangwu in front of their neighborhood’s Wanda Plaza every week. Since 2017, Sunshine Dance Grouphas taken part in several performances each year. They perform for community events and in senior homes.
“We’re sisters that dance together and grow together. Even though we’re getting older, I think our posture is getting better because we dance. I forget my age when I dance guangchangwu because dancing to the music makes me feel young. Sunshine Dance Group is like my family,” says Mei Qin.
In Vancouver, Canada, guangchangwu is a common sight: small groups of Chinese women dance amongst children hanging from monkey bars and teenagers playing basketball.
Most of these middle-aged Chinese women are young grandmothers. They immigrated with their families to Vancouver from provinces in China such as Sichuan, Hunan, and Zhejiang. Besides spending time at home, cooking, and watching television dramas, they say taking part in guangchangwu is one of their favorite past times.
“Back in Chengdu I played mahjong and danced guangchangwu with many friends. Now I am here to take care of my grandson and granddaughter. I find happiness in dancing guangchangwu with others here,” says 63-year-old Fan Xiao Yang.
Yang has been living in Richmond, British Columbia, for two years now. She dances guangchangwu every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday evening at Garden City Elementary School Park.
Spreading worldwide, guangchangwu has also taken on public theater. Back in 2016, a 80-minute drama starring six dancing grannies took place in Penghao Theater in downtown Beijing. “50/60 Dance Theater with Dama” included guangchangwu choreography with inspiration from Beijing opera, ballroom dancing, and daily chores. The six performers are retired dancing grannies with no previous professional training or stage experience. and also performed on the international stage at the Vie Festival in the Bologna, Italy.
The phenomenon of dancing grannies continues to attract more and more participants in China and across the world. While certain challenges remain, the passion and talent of guangchangwu dancers is truly inspiring. More than just a way to stay healthy and connected to the community, guangchangwu has become an integral part of Chinese society.
A big thank you to all the participants who contributed to this project. The Phenomenon of Dancing Grannies: Guangchangwu is for the Global Business Journalism Program at Tsinghua University.