Song and dance over dancing in public areas

Dance enthusiasts often gather at Beijing's Jingshan Park in the mornings for ballroom dancing. The oldest in the group, Madam Lu Runqing (above), 79, says dancing keeps her brain fromageing.

Some do so in costumes with sequins. Others put on Red Guard uniforms. But most are happy just to dance in the company of friends, in front of curious crowds who stop to soak up the scene.

Middle-aged or elderly "dancing queens" - most are women though some men join in - are a common sight in Chinese cities. But not everyone is happy to see them.

Just last month, a man fed up with female neighbours bopping to loud beats dumped a bucket of faeces on them in Wuhan, central Hubei province. In August, a Beijing man fired a shot into the air and let loose three mastiffs on a dance group.

The southern city of Guangzhou is reportedly planning a ban on dancing in public squares, a move welcomed by 70 per cent of nearly 3,000 people polled on microblog site Sina Weibo last Wednesday.

The tangle between dance lovers and noise-sensitive residents has thrust China's public square dances or guangchang wu - so much a part of the scenery that some people do not notice them any more - into centre stage.

It is an activity enjoyed by a wide segment of Chinese society: One out of every 13 people in China, or 100 million, takes part in such dances, said Chinese media reports. Most are aged between 40 and 65.

That these dances are occurring in public spaces in China underlines the lack of suitable venues, such as Singapore-style community centres or dance studios.

Out in the open, these dances are very much an open church too, catering to all-comers and all styles. These can range from aerobic to ethnic or traditional ones.

Participants learn from trainers for a small fee - 120 yuan (S$25) over four months, in one instance - or teach themselves by following steps from online videos.

The Chinese even take guangchang wu with them when they move abroad, like the Chinese women who were asked to stop dancing by American cops when their dancing got too noisy at a park in Brooklyn, New York, in June this year.

But China has not always been a hive of dancing activity. Public dances started popping up in Chinese cities only in the 1980s, when China loosened up, said enthusiast Si Zhu, 57, a retiree in Beijing, who began public dancing about eight years ago.

Before that, most people could not sing freely, much less dance in public, he recounted.

"During the Cultural Revolution, we could sing only songs about Mao Zedong and not counter-revolutionary ones like those with lyrics like 'I love you'. Those are seen as mi mi zhi yin (decadent sounds)," he said, referring to the socio-political movement from 1966 to 1976.

These days, songs about love and marriage are a dime a dozen on the "dance floor" outside the Raffles City shopping mall in Beijing's Dongzhimen area.

When The Sunday Times joined the gawkers on a recent weeknight, a live band, with cymbals and drums, struck up the tunes as a man and a woman yodelled about anything from the grassland to the motherland.

Illuminated by lights from the surrounding lamp posts and passing vehicles, dancers took to the floor, in groups, pairs or even solo.

As many as 30 people, mainly those living nearby, gather nightly for their dance fix, said Mr Si. Most had not known one another before. "For us, it's the simplest form of exercise," said retiree Cheng Yongying, 64.

Public dances can be seen in Beijing also in the mornings, especially in parks.

Jingshan Park, which lies behind the Forbidden City, plays host to more than half a dozen dance groups. In one corner of the park, a group of more than 10 women wrapped in scarves, gloves and jackets were following instructor Chi Zuoqi's lead when The Sunday Times visited on a weekday morning.

"We started here in the 1990s, after the Falungong people left," said Ms Chi, 65, citing the spiritual qigong group banned in China from 1999 and whose members had frequented the park.

In another corner, about 20 elderly women threw high kicks to the beat of American Billboard hits with lyrics like "sweet, sweet love". Close by, couples waltzed to the rhythms of Chinese folk tune Moon Rising In Rosy Cloud.

Former civil servant Wang Yuede, 66, has been coming to the park to do ballroom dances since retiring five years ago. "I learnt dancing for my tai tai (wife)," he said, with a laugh. "She likes to dance but I didn't know how to before I retired," he added.

The oldest in the group is Madam Lu Runqing, who turned her dance partner around so fluidly that she showed little sign of being 79.

She has been dancing for about six years, switching from taiji and martial arts as she wanted to work her heart and lungs more. "I can exercise and also appreciate music at the same time. It helps keep my brain from ageing," she said.

Dance lovers like Madam Lu say they understand complaints about noise but stress that they make efforts to keep the volume down. Dancing has become such a part of their lives that they cannot imagine not doing so.

Mr Wang said with a sigh: "Some think the din is too much, but we have no other place to go."

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