Dancing Grannies

You see them in public squares throughout China, middle-aged women dancing without a care in the world, but exactly how did this hobby start?

WTDW

Throughout the Middle Kingdom, in parks, squares, residential gardens, or any open space large enough to swing a cat, energetic grannies (dama) can be seen vigorously busting out their dance moves to music, and bad music at that. Why these group dance-offs are quite so ubiquitous is not entirely clear, but the fact that such activities seem to be energetically promoted by the government, and with China yet to embrace any coherent policy on noise pollution, these women are unlikely to stop their dancing any time soon. Word on the street is that square dancing is set to grow, and soon will see the heralding of square dancing on an ever bigger scale, the self-organized part time dancing is due to step up to the next level and become a nationally recognized sport and competition.

The origins of such dancing are squarely linked to yangge, a folk dance specifically popular in rural areas of the north. Though originally performed in public to celebrate important agricultural events, the art form prospered and by the 1940s, the communists co-opted this folk art as a propaganda tool. By 1943, this ‘new yangge movement” was being promoted in the north of Shaanxi, the cradle of the party. New choreography and political content was added to the old form and the dance was used to support and stabilize the new regime. Yangge had turned Red.

By the time China had moved into the 1950s, the new yangge was no longer just a preserve of those in the north, but had spread throughout the country like wildfire, in particular to be used in celebrations of the communist victory over the Nationalist Party and the establishment of the PRC. But it was by no means just for the old; young people were proud to perform yangge in parades and celebrations, as it slowly became a dance iconic to China.

Performed in squares, streets, sports grounds and even countryside threshing floors, almost everybody who had not yet been accused of crimes were asked perform the dance to show loyalty to the party. As you can imagine, it was a popular dance.

By the time the 1960s and 1970s had came around, the darkest two decades in the PRC’s history, the Cultural Revolution had begun to eat away at the country’s traditions and culture, yangge being replaced by the catchily titled “loyalty dance”. Performed in squares, streets, sports grounds and even countryside threshing floors, almost everybody who had not yet been accused of crimes were asked perform the dance to show loyalty to the party. As you can imagine, it was a popular dance. The movements were as dull as any state sponsored art is likely to be, and music was limited to a few red songs such as Sailing the Seas Depends on the Helmsman and The East Is Red.

By 1976 the madness came to an end, the country slowly coming its senses; the atmosphere of the 1980s was relatively open. Western culture began to sneak in, and ballroom and even disco dance began to make headway. Initially, such public dancing was stifled by the government, ever wary of large public gatherings.

As the country’s urbanization rapidly accelerated, young rural Chinese swarmed into the cities for better-paid jobs, often bringing their parents to take care of any children. And what were these dama to do in cities aliens to them, facilities seemingly all aimed at the young? The answer was to do what they know, what they had always known: dance. But this time with a few new steps and modern disco tunes spun into the mix. It was also a pretty nifty way to keep fit too.

So, it is clear these square dancing dama are no accident. There are multiple reasons why they do what they do in China. Hell, maybe they could only exist in China. As for whether the younger generation will follow in the dancing steps of their parents, who knows? It will probably all depend on whether emergent hobbies such as hiking and yoga take hold, not to mention whether the government decides to up its game with regards to noise pollution at all hours, but for now at least, the dancing will continue…