Dance like no one’s watching? The quarrels with dancing ladies in China
A few months ago, Chinese social media met a well-known incident. In a video, a man from Yingtan (鹰潭) city proudly shows a remote control. The device is used to turn off the music speaker of the old ladies performing their daily choreography on the square just below his window- and who are now desperately left to wonder how the music was shut down.
Netizens' reaction, overall, was of rejoice. Many seemed willing to buy one to eliminate what they consider a common problem: loud music and public disturbance.1 How so?
Tracing the first steps
The protagonists of public dances are the so-called damas (大妈). Damas are women who lived through the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution and the subsequent Reform and Opening Up policies.2 Later turned housewives, retirees, or simply unemployed, they began organizing themselves in public spaces in Chinese cities to dance.
This tendency brought a sense of community—keeping social interaction outside of the domestic sphere—and a nostalgic feeling from the collectivist era of their youth.3
Their preferred styles vary, from synchronized performances to the sound of the latest pop music to traditional folk and ethnic dances, and even paired ballroom waltz. Groups are organized mainly by a leader, who serves as both a representative and a leading choreographer. Her movements are freely followed by the other ladies.
Some damas say they join square dancing for fun and exercise. Still, others are even willing to undergo hardworking training routines to compete in local or officially sponsored events.4
Stepping on other people’s toes
Due to almost zero cost and the simple routine, popularity of square dancing has grown exponentially in the past 30 years. But with popularity also came problems.
The most common ones are neighbors angry with the loud music late at night, complaints about improper use of public space,5 and even annoyed students trying to concentrate during the college entrance examination (高考 gaokao) period.6 The response of the damas is mostly dismissing, claiming to be on their own right to make use of the public space outside of other people’s privacy.7
What seems to be at stake is the tension between two different conceptions of sociability and public.
On the one hand, the damas were raised in a period of mass social mobilization, prioritizing the group over the individual. On the other hand, the complaints follow an emerging logic that goes hand in hand with China’s rapid urbanization and more individualized codes of privacy and “urban civic culture.”8
According to Junxi Qian and Yanheng Lu,
“The logics of commons and collective contradict the opinions voiced by private residents and disinterested commentators, who advocate that public space must have an ethical dimension and foster mutual respect and compromise between different constituents of the society.”9
Is the party over?
Since 2015 Chinese authorities have stepped forward to mitigate the issues of square dancing. Regulations were passed to permit gatherings at specific places and times,10 and fines of up to 500 yuans were established for noncompliant dancers.11
But despite the attempts to solve the situation, tensions between local residents and the square dancers still build up.
With their unstoppable will, the damas are the living part of Chinese history which refuses to follow the new rules of space and social relations brought by the country’s recent embrace of capitalism.
References / To go further
Manya Koetse, “‘Anti-Square Dancing Device’ Goes Viral on Chinese Social Media”, What’s on Weibo, October 2, 2021, https://www.whatsonweibo.com/anti-square-dancing-device-goes-viral-on-chinese-social-media/.
Chiayi Seetoo and Haoping Zou, “China’s Guangchang Wu: The Emergence, Choreography, and Management of Dancing in Public Squares,” TDR: The Drama Review 60, no. 4 (T232) Winter 2016.
He Huifeng, “Why are Chinese grandmas so into square dancing?,” Goldthread, June 21, 2019, https://www.goldthread2.com/culture/chinese-grandmas-square-dancing/article/3015586.
Seetoo and Zou, “China’s Guangchang Wu.”
Tania Branigan, “China’s noisy dancing retirees have local residents up in arms”, The Guardian, January 19, 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jan/19/china-noisy-dancing-retirees-amateur-dance.
Manya Koetse, “China’s ‘Dancing Grannies’ Anger Stressed-Out Students Ahead of Gaokao Exams”, What’s on Weibo, June 8, 2017, https://www.whatsonweibo.com/dancing-grannies-anger-students-exam-stress/.
He Huifeng, “The dancing damas: China's 'square dancers' take society by storm”, South China Morning Post, December 17, 2014, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/article/1663571/chinas-square-dancers-take-society-storm-their-loud-music-and?module=perpetual_scroll&pgtype=article&campaign=1663571.
Junxi Qian and Yanheng Lu, “On the trail of comparative urbanism: Square dance and public space in China”, Trans Inst Br Geogr. 44, no. 4 (2019): 2, https://doi.org/10.1111/tran.12321.
Qian and Lu, “On the trail of comparative urbanism,” 10.
“China orders square dancers to heel and toe the line”, The Guardian, March 24, 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/mar/24/china-orders-square-dancers-to-heel-and-toe-the-line.
Phoebe Zhang, “China considers legal changes to curb noise pollution from the country’s notorious dancing grannies,” South China Morning Post, August 18, 2021, https://www.scmp.com/news/people-culture/environment/article/3145450/china-considers-legal-changes-curb-noise-pollution.