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    China’s University Students Dance Like Nobody’s Watching

    They danced to Taylor Swift’s hits together until midnight in the public square, finding connection with one another in the most isolated moments of their youth.

    One Wednesday night in late 2022, Qiao Feifei, a sophomore majoring in Chinese international education at Beijing Foreign Studies University (BFSU), dashed out of the cafeteria and headed for the small square in front of the auditorium. His plan was to snag a spot in the first row of the square dance.

    Not to be confused with the famous American square dance, this dance, popular amongst older women colloquially referred to as aunties, is called this in China because it actually takes place in a public square.

    Qiao sat on the steps and waited. Half an hour later, his phone vibrated with a message from the square dancing group he had pinned on WeChat: “Come out and dance.” The text came every night at 7 p.m. from Qingqing, the group admin who worked as a custodian for the school. The group started with only a dozen older women, but later ballooned to three group chats that would occasionally max out at 500 members each.

    Just as in BFSU, which students have jokingly renamed as “Beijing Forever Square-Dancing University,” square dancing has taken other campuses by storm between 2021 and 2022. On video platform Bilibili, there are hundreds of videos of college students dancing in a public square on campuses, organized by students from different schools during COVID-19 lockdowns. The comments read, “Apparently square dancing isn’t so bad” and “Living the senior life 40 years early!”

    Square dancing, typically associated with older Chinese women, was just one of the ways students tried to kill time and have fun during extended campus lockdowns due to the pandemic. Other attempts, such as “crocodile crawling” in groups or making paper dogs and walking them on campuses, also went viral and created a sense of connection in a period of isolation.

    When two generations meet

    BFSU’s square dancing started with Qingqing in 2012, when she was looking to relax after a day of manual labor. After talking with two cafeteria workers, they started dancing together in the open space in front of the auditorium. Gradually, more workers joined them.

    “We get off work at 5:30 p.m., finish dinner at 7 p.m., and then the group would instantly get together,” Qingqing said. She purchased a speaker, browsed social media for dance videos, and broke down the steps to teach everyone. Of the four or five cohorts of people who have joined in the past decade, only she remains.

    One of the dancers had been a member of the school’s staff baseball team and now she lives in her home behind the cafeteria. After she retired, she turned to square dancing as a way to exercise and to socialize with other women. “It gets a little lonely cooking and cleaning at home without seeing anyone,” she said. That night, when she came out to dance, she was draped in jewelry. She wore a jade ring on her left hand, and a gold ring on her right. Jade and silver bracelets sparkled from her wrists, brighter than the rubies around her neck. Everything she wore was a gift from her daughter from Yunnan province.

    The aunties mainly danced to the electronic versions of old songs until 9:30 p.m.

    Due to COVID-19, nobody could leave the campus unless absolutely necessary during the fall semester of 2021. Being trapped on a campus of less than 83 acres meant that people had to regularly pass through the public square to move around. In turn, more people encountered square dancing.

    Qiao himself first took note of the dancing women in September that year. “I wanted to rush over there to join them, but it was a little awkward because there weren’t many students,” he said. He had grown up doing square dancing, and it gave him a sense of accomplishment.

    Later, the number of younger dancers increased thanks to two graduate students who started the trend among the students. Standing among 200-plus people, Qiao no longer felt out of place. But to follow the senior dancers’ moves better, students would have to get there half an hour or even an hour early to get a spot in the first row. “It’s harder than getting a seat in class,” he said. The small square would be densely packed with four or five rows of people, which meant that they sometimes had to relocate to the playground.

    Qingqing suddenly found herself with over a hundred trainees. She wore a black suede dress and used a portable microphone and loudspeaker to call out the beat. During the day, some of these women mopped the floor around the pool, while others worked in the cafeteria, serving meat with noodles to diners. But in the evening, they all turned into enthusiastic dance teachers.

    Though she never expected students to join them, Qingqing understood that everyone was doing it to get up and move. “Students can’t just sit and study all day,” she said, adding that their presence “makes us feel young again.”

    Some dance moves were easier to learn for newcomers, such as tuhai, or the Chinese bounce. Some tuhai songs require repeated moves in each of the four directions following music characterized by whistles and repetitive melodies.

    Some students who had never danced before thought square dancing was tacky, so they felt a little embarrassed when they tried it for the first time. “But it also felt like a guilty pleasure, like eating forbidden fruit, and that embarrassment turned into a lot of joy,” one student said.

    One choreography involved pretending to smooth your hair back in front of the mirror and then, with both hands holding your head, whipping your head back and forth as if you were drunk. Then you gyrated your hips — the wilder the better — before strutting forward with the confidence of a queen. Although some thought the move was incredibly corny, there was no shame or ridicule when everyone did it together.

    “If it wasn’t for the pandemic, I’d probably be walking around with my friends in a hutong or eating out at some mall instead of dancing my head off here,” one student said. Kept in lockdown, people cheerfully let loose for a while within the limited space they had in the square.

    Gong Jun, a third-year graduate student in translation and interpreting, accidentally became one of the student dance leaders. He always showed up with his black-framed glasses and a face mask that rotated between blue, neon green, and Chinese red. The aunties noticed him dancing well one time and brought him to the front. Thinking he was just average, he meant to drop back after one song. Then he realized he had lost his original spot, so he had to finish out the night at the front. After that, he never went to the back row again.

    There were also other students whose dancing skills the aunties felt merited a spot in the front.

    As the number of dancers rose, the square dancing duration also grew longer. The aunties used to finish at 9:30 p.m., but that clashed with the last class of the day. For a lot of students, it was still too early to go to bed. To continue dancing after the aunties finished, the student pooled together 200 yuan ($30) to get a stereo.

    Once the square was turned over to the students, their dance repertoire grew. “We wanted to tap into songs that our generation likes, so there’s a little bit of everything: Chinese classics, street dance, love songs, foreign language songs,” one student said. Eventually, their playlist expanded to more than 160 songs, including hits from Taylor Swift, Despacito, and other viral pop songs. The dance moves also became more complex, incorporating moves from jazz and folk dancing.

    Unlike the aunties, the students didn’t practice the choreography five or six times in a row; they just finished and cut to the next song. Meng, a college senior, preferred that approach because they got more diverse songs. “It’s true that a good dance needs to be repeated, but we’re here more to relax, so there’s no need to perfect the moves,” he said.

    Breaking barriers

    Some people relish the fun of mastering the moves, while others enjoy the chaos of dancing with their whole body despite being off-beat. Gong deliberately stood in the back row, both to let more people see better but also to observe the dancing of those in front of him. He noticed that the first two or three rows of students would follow the lead dancer closely, “but people in the back row dance however they want.”

    When Wang Murui first started square dancing, he was set on memorizing all the moves, thanks to his mindset born from academic competition. But that changed when he realized that nobody cared how he danced, so he stopped caring about dancing “correctly.” Instead, he focused on listening to the melody and getting comfortable with the moves.

    Wang moved like a butterfly as he danced. When others would only raise their hands to their shoulders, he would bring his hands above his head. “I’m not an experienced dancer, so it might look bad from a professional point of view,” he explained. “But as long as I feel like I’m dancing with the right energy, then that’s good.”

    He said that square dancing cured him of his mild social anxiety. Nobody there knew anyone else, and they all came for different reasons: some for physical fitness, some for the music, some for hanging out with friends. “As soon as you focus on yourself and forget about imagining that others are looking at you, then it’s easy to let go,” he said. “It’s fine to be a drunk butterfly or a confident queen. As long as I’m enjoying it, then nobody can make me feel awkward.”

    Social anxiety is often about verbal expression, which square dancing does not require. Face-to-face interactions are greatly reduced in an era of remote meetings, and people are often separated by a face mask when they do meet. Yet in the square, the dancing and the music can bridge that gap, allowing everyone to feel at ease and in tune with each other.

    The same goes for breaking down the barriers between the aunties and the students. “It’s really nice to mingle with the students and discuss what songs to learn with each other,” said Qingqing. “Admittedly, though, they’re agile, and some of the songs are too fast-paced for us to keep up.” Sometimes she watched from the sidelines as Gong led the group, but most of the time she tried her best and could master two new songs selected by the students on the spot.

    From the students’ side, Qiao also admired the aunties who are no longer confined to tuhai songs. “Any barrier can be broken. Aunties and college students are like mothers and children in age, but dance brings us together,” he said. “Sometimes they forget the dance steps, but then the children remember, so they let us lead. That suddenly made me realize that if people can do something together in pursuit of happiness, then that breaks down barriers and stereotypes.”

    The gender barrier was likewise being broken, as the square dancing group included a considerable number of men. Some danced too forcefully, others too stiffly; still, there were some, gifted like Gong Jun, who moved gently yet powerfully — and perfectly on beat. Of the dozen lead dancers, the men outnumbered the women.

    Gong had never danced before, but he did the arabesque with such willowy grace that one of the lead female dancers joked that she felt “ashamed as a woman.”

    Some moves needed some “sensuality” to be done well, like waving your hands together as your hips sway or holding the “orchid finger” gesture while spinning on your toes. Gong saw “sensuality” as a neutral word, saying, “If you can’t get your body in position, then you can’t capture the essence” of the dance.

    “You’ll never understand square dancing if you’re biased. Maybe you think it’s only for the elderly, so why would young people do it? Or maybe you think square dancing is exclusively for Chinese aunties, so why would normal men be interested? If so, then you lose the opportunity to be happy,” he added.

    An “unofficial minor”

    Wang, who described himself as “an English translation major minoring in square dancing,” pinned the square dancing group chat at the top of his WeChat messages. Through dancing, he felt a brief escape from reality. He didn’t think about his classmates in those two hours, wondering if they’re memorizing vocabulary words or polishing their résumés. He didn’t think about the boost square dancing might give his evaluation if only it was an accredited student club.

    Before college senior Meng started square dancing, he used to study until 11 p.m. before going back to his dormitory. “But now I dance until 11:30 p.m. If I go, I usually dance from 7 p.m. until the end. Once I start, I can’t stop,” he said. He kept a file of the songs, their titles, and the corresponding dance video links. Whenever he was tired of studying, he would open a link randomly, head downstairs, and find a place to practice. At least that way, he wouldn’t embarrass himself when he danced with the group at night.

    In the fall semester, his friends were either working toward postgraduate recommendations or getting job offers from major internet companies. Although Meng himself was preparing for the civil service exam, he didn’t feel like he had a definite plan for the future. After deciding to join the civil service, his square dancing frequency dropped from five or six times a week to only two or three times. Those few nights were his way of rewarding himself for finishing his studying, and each time, he forgot his unhappiness about exam preparation and peer pressure. “I could just throw myself into it. I simply enjoy the rhythm and the joy of it,” he said.

    Gong and the other lead dancers thought about applying to make their hobby a school club, but then they would need to market the club and be ranked, so they decided against that. Gong figured that without being registered as a club, everyone could join them.

    The dancing each night concluded with a round of applause that became a routine for the group. “I think it has three layers of meanings,” Meng said. “One, you applaud yourself. Second, you applaud everyone for finishing together. Third, you applaud the lead dancers for dancing so well.”

    Is square dancing a form of entertainment, a body-strengthening exercise, or a popular art? Everyone has their own answer to the question, but they certainly share one emotion: joy.

    As COVID-19 restrictions eased, the craze for square dancing waned.

    The number of people in the square has fallen since its peak in the fall of 2021. Now, only about 20 to 30 people join each night. Still, the joy found in square dancing would forever remain, for anybody is welcome to join.

    Reported by Jin Mengzhe, with additional reporting from Sun Yang, Wang Yixin, and Wang Xiaotian.

    Qiao Feifei, Qingqing, Wang Murui, Gong Jun, Meng, and Wang are pseudonyms.

    A version of this article originally appeared in Investigation 107, a student media publication at the Beijing Foreign Studies University School of International Journalism and Communication. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and published with permission.

    Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Xue Yongle and Elise Mak.

    (Header image: A square dancing group at BFSU, 2012. Investigation 107)