How Square Dancing Grannies Became Capitalism’s Next Frontier
It’s a sight familiar to anyone who has taken a nighttime stroll through a Chinese city: row upon row of middle-aged women — with a few men sprinkled in — bopping to lively, often EDM-inspired tunes blasted through cheap yet surprisingly robust speakers. They are China’s “square dancing grannies” — groups composed primarily of women in their 50s and 60s looking for ways to stay active and get out of the house.
Yet while many consider Chinese square dancing a quintessential symbol of modern urban life in the country, not everyone can get into the groove. Dance groups’ tendency to blare pulsing music late into the night frequently arouses the ire of nearby residents, and at various points dancers have been threatened, had dogs set on them, and even been pelted with feces. However, if aggrieved urbanites are hoping for a “Footloose”-style crackdown, they’re likely to be disappointed — these grannies stand at the center of a powerful nexus of political, cultural, and commercial interests.
Although square dancing may be a relatively new phenomenon in China — the practice has really only taken off over the past 20 years or so — its roots stretch deep. Many ethnic groups in the country have their own traditions of organized dancing, but what we would today recognize as Chinese square dancing has its origins in the desire of early Communist officials to build solidarity and promote the development of a healthy and physically sound society.
The earliest modern ancestor of square dancing is probably the so-called New Yangge movement of the early 1940s. Yangge is an ancient form of Chinese dance that dates back to the Song dynasty (A.D. 960-1279) and has its roots in northern China. The Communist Party, which for much of the ‘30s and ‘40s was relegated to a few remote base areas in the northern province of Shaanxi, repurposed the term as part of its efforts to use dance to rally northern Chinese villagers to its side. Later, the simplified version of yangge popularized by the movement, which consisted of three quick steps, was carried throughout China by members of the People’s Liberation Army. Over time, it spread from the countryside to the cities and became one of the most popular group-oriented cultural activities of the early Communist period.
Athletics were a key priority for the country’s new leadership, which saw sports as a way to encourage physical activity and group solidarity. Shortly after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the government launched a nationwide athletics initiative to try to improve the health of the country’s citizens — many of whom were in poor shape after decades of war and conflict — and to encourage popular interest in sports. Daily exercise programs were broadcast over the radio to cities and villages around China, eventually becoming a compulsory part of elementary school education.
Yet it would take another 40 years — and a radical overhaul of the country’s economic system — for these practices to spawn a square dancing phenomenon. The first mention of square dancing in state media came on Sept. 20, 1989, in an article published in the Party-affiliated newspaper People’s Daily. The article, which was titled “The Rustic Practice Sweeping the Nation: On Popular Square Dances,” explained to curious readers that, “Square dancing is a popular, highly participatory art form with deep roots and broad appeal. It can be done anywhere, with any number of participants, and its free-flowing movements have their own distinct artistry and charm."
Although it would be another decade before square dancing fully took off, many trends that would later underline its rise were already in place. When an aging population, declining welfare support, and technological advances began to influence government, commercial, and popular interests, in the early 21st century, square dancing was finally propelled to its current level of prominence — and profitability.
According to the 2010 Chinese census, 13.3 percent of China’s total population is aged 60 and over — almost double the 7 percent figure used by the United Nations to define an “aging society.” And over the next 20 years, China’s elderly population is expected to continue growing by 10 million each year. This is taking place right as the government is cutting benefit programs and de-emphasizing its role at the center of the socialist welfare state.
Many elderly Chinese live on fixed incomes, and as health care costs rise, they worry about what will happen should they fall ill — concerns that are compounded by their feelings of loneliness and isolation. Whereas the state previously maintained cultural and dance troupes that would put on frequent performances for the elderly, today all that most Chinese seniors have to occupy their time are their grandkids and household chores. For participants, square dancing is a way to stay fit and keep one another company as they navigate the pitfalls of old age.
The government is certainly aware of the potential risk posed by an aging, increasingly infirm population to the country’s already strained health care and welfare systems. In addressing these problems, however, it has focused on finding low-cost solutions that put the onus on people to take care of themselves rather than stick the state with the bill. From this perspective, square dancing is ideal. It can be performed anywhere and requires little more than a loudspeaker, making it cheap and easy to organize. China’s national and regional governments have thrown their weight behind the practice, even helping to coordinate large-scale square dancing events and competitions.
Given the level of influence the state exerts over Chinese media, it’s certainly possible that square dancing’s visibility in popular culture might also be a function of government interests. Media companies, however, have their own commercial reasons for targeting this market. Estimates suggest there may be as many as 100 million square dancing aficionados nationwide. Shows such as “I Want to Dance With You” and “Who’s the Dancing King?” vie for the attention of fans by showcasing contestants drawn from across the country and giving them the chance to participate in the national square dancing finals aired live on TV. The music industry has also gotten in on the act, with popular groups such as Phoenix Legend and Chopstick Brothers releasing songs specifically targeting square dancers.
The tech industry is courting the market as well, having become one of the key drivers of square dancing’s popularity and a major beneficiary of its rise. The growth of China’s internet sector has given square dancers access to almost every song ever produced, with vast libraries of instructional videos available on streaming apps for both seasoned and aspiring dancers. On Taobao and other e-commerce marketplaces, online sellers now offer dance enthusiasts everything they could possibly desire, including tailored outfits, shoes, speakers, and props.
There are even specialized square dancing apps such as Tangdou and 1758 — a play on the Chinese phrase for “Let’s Dance” — that boast user bases numbering in the tens of millions. The apps are optimized for the hobby’s older practitioners, with clean interfaces and carefully curated videos. And they appear to be making an impression. Tangdou, for example, claims that its users spend an average of 30 minutes a day on its video app, and that its videos receive a total of 300 million views a month — figures robust enough to attract $20 million in outside investment. This may seem like a lot for an app that plays dance videos to middle-aged Chinese, but if there really are anything like 100 million square dancers in the country, the market they represent would potentially be worth trillions of yuan, and more people are aging into square dancing’s prime demographic every day.
Other companies’ strategies are more direct. In one case, a hardware startup with lackluster sales decided to reinvent itself as a “square dancing club.” Now it charges banks and real estate developers to sponsor square dancing uniforms while simultaneously using its various club events to sell dancers financial instruments, health care products, housing properties, and travel packages.
Since its origins in traditional Chinese cultural practices and socialist principles of collective exercise, square dancing has become a microcosm of the changes that China has undergone since the launch of the country’s market reforms in the late 1970s. Over the past few decades, the government has stepped back from many of its earlier welfare obligations, instead encouraging its citizens to form their own low-cost fitness groups, which were quickly commercialized by the country’s growing private sector. So the next time you hear pounding, headache-inducing dance music on a nighttime stroll, remember that you’re not just hearing the sound of elderly people staying fit — it's the sound of capitalism at work.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: A square dancing competition in Haidian district, Beijing, Sep. 15, 2018. Jia Tianyong/VCG)