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Not music to their ears

By Raymond Zhou | China Daily | Updated: 2013-08-17 08:30

Not music to their ears

Not music to their ears

The quintessential Chinese phenomenon of dancing in public parks may not be appreciated in other cultures.

Old women dancing in public parks is a fixture in urban China. Chinese walking or driving by take it for granted. But for foreigners on their first trip to China, this is a sight that may puzzle them.

Now imagine such a scene in Brooklyn, New York. In June, a group of elderly Chinese women were stopped by police and the lead dancer was threatened with arrest if they did not turn down the volume of their music. The neighbors had been complaining about the noise, the cops said.

No one seems to have offered a sociological dissection of the old-women-dancing-their-hearts-out phenomenon. The way I see it, it speaks volumes about China in transition and the way Chinese conduct themselves. As I remember, such group dancing did not exist until the 1990s on a national scale. In a sense, it is the purest form of entertainment because it is self-organized and self-funded unless the government asks them to participate in official events.

While the participants see it as a cross between dance and aerobics, I believe the primary function is socializing. The retired population, especially women, need a platform to communicate with one another and establish a sense of belonging. In the old days, they would call on each other and gossip over sesame seeds. In the future, people may rely on their mobile gadgets for such functions. But for the current generation who do not need to take care of their grandchildren and who have surplus income for social activities, group dancing is an exercise in both physical dexterity and mental agility.

Above all, it is a picture of contentment that comes with fecundity in life. Someone scraping by would not think of partaking in this kind of frolicking senior style. For me, this form of spontaneous performance says more about the value of entertainment than even a meticulously rehearsed show with glitz and fanfare. Just look at the faces and you'll know the smiles are from the heart.

For an outsider, the puzzling thing may not be dancing per se, but the occasion or location. Shouldn't such activities take place indoors, say, a recreational center for seniors, they may ask. I guess choosing public open spaces like parks was initially out of necessity. China does not have lots of facilities for the retired. Even exercise machines, the kind that belong in a gym or a playground in the US, are mostly installed along strips of common residential ground.

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