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October 14, 2018

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Dancing the night, and years, away

IN a sparkling white cap and oversized sunglasses, 55-year-old retiree Zhang Yongli and dozens of her neighbors liven up a Shanghai park by doing the jitterbug, part of a public dance craze that has become a national pastime.

Every day, more than 100 million people — dubbed “dancing aunties,” as they are primarily older women — take over squares and parks to tango, waltz and grind out everything from flamenco to traditional dance.

Complaints over speakers blaring late at night have followed, and even physical brawls pitting aunties against others vying for park turf, or just seeking some peace and quiet.

But toes are tapping to an ever-quickening beat as line dancing, often referred to as “square dancing” in China, takes center stage among the golden generation.

Teams are competing in dance-offs featuring thousands of contestants, while a thriving market of dance-related paraphernalia and mobile apps has caught the attention of the business world.

Even the government has jumped on the bandwagon to extol the health benefits.

“Square dancing happens wherever there is a square,” said Wang Guangcheng, a fitness instructor and choreographer who is helping devise dance routines and is widely known as China’s “Square Dance Prince.”

More than 240 million Chinese are aged over 60, a number expected to double by 2050.

By then, the government estimates China will be spending more than one-quarter of its GDP on elder care and medical services, compared to around 7 percent in 2015, placing increasing importance on healthy, active lifestyles.

Zhang “was sitting at home, doing nothing” after retiring five years ago from her travel-agency job, undergoing treatment for diabetes, high blood pressure and cholesterol.

“Since I started dancing, my (health) indicators are now normal. I no longer need medication,” she said as her neighborhood dance group’s red skirts twirled in Zhongshan Park.

“I also look younger,” said Zhang, who has jived away 11 kilograms of bodyweight.

A 2016 national fitness plan stressed that “square dancing” should be “vigorously developed” as a team sport and last year it became an event at China’s National Games alongside old reliables like athletics and swimming.

Local contests are proliferating.

Li Zhenhua’s team worked with a professional instructor for weeks, enduring the winter chill and the summer heat of their local square to train for a citywide contest that culminated in August.

Her team, drawn mostly from China’s ethnic Korean minority, took the title with their traditional Korean dances, beating 750 other troupes.

“I was delighted to find a Korean team in Shanghai, not only to exercise and dance but also to pass on our culture,” Li said.

‘Silver’ economy

Mass public dancing took root after 1949. But it has really taken off lately as an increasingly prosperous China finds more leisure time.

Nearly every neighborhood park or square today is enlivened by dancers availing themselves of free exercise routines.

Taobao and other businesses are expressly targeting the new market to sell clothing, speakers and gadgets for watching and learning new dances.

Sales are excellent and every market study confirms that the industry is booming.

Han Xiaoyuan, 28, is the founder of a mobile app for organizing competitions and purchasing gear. User numbers have increased five-fold over the past two years and now number more than 500,000.

Han is just one of the many entrepreneurs coming up with business initiatives aimed at the wider “silver economy” as represented by the dancers, selling travel packages, financial services and other products geared specifically toward retirees.

Han said, “The elderly have the time and money ... They are our principal business target group.”

Square dancing is even changing age-old gender dynamics, as grandmothers are often away training for long stretches.

“Several of our team members’ husbands have learned to change diapers and have taken over feeding the grandchildren as a way of supporting us,” said 65-year-old Hong Aizhen.

Perhaps sensing a different kind of opportunity, many men are bustin’ a few dance moves themselves.

Late one recent weekend, hundreds of people filled a tree-lined park in central Shanghai amid a cacophony of musical styles as men and women waltzed or formed conga lines, and children did the cha-cha.

The older generation has a fabulously catholic taste in music that includes hip-hop and heavy metal, but old revolutionary standards and other patriotic tunes remain firm favorites.

“We are not only delivering a fitness culture, but also the concept of a prosperous country,” said choreographer Wang. “Many songs we choose express our national characteristics and values.”

But dance enthusiast Zhang prefers the zesty jive.

“I forget all my worries when I dance, even my age,” she said.


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