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GROOVY GRANNIES

What’s more important? Grannies spending their time dancing and keeping fit, or students studying for their pre-university exam?

For the last 15 years or so, elderly women have taken to “square dancing” in public spaces — gardens, pedestrian plazas, pavements. The term comes from four couples forming a square, but the numbers normally extend to 20 or 30, with men joining them sometimes. The dance is usually a blend of energetic Western and traditional tai chi, and is performed to music played from a tape recorder. The dance goes on from 7am to 11am and then post-dinner, from 7pm to 10 pm. The dancers are all amateurs; often, they pay a small fee to the lead dancer who directs the moves.

Many parks have special stages for such dancing; some village authorities have set up troupes to encourage the women left behind in the village to dance. Square-dancing competitions are also held, and dancers now think up themes to dance to: recently, a group in Beijing danced with rifles to an old patriotic song on the Japanese invasion.

For many elderly women (damas — ‘big mothers’), this is a perfect way of spending their time, one which drives away loneliness and keeps them healthy, at no cost. Some women commute three hours to make it in time for the dancing, their lives revolve around this shared activity.

But last year, Guangzhou prepared a draft law that would ban such dancing in “silence zones” even within parks, with a fine of 200 yuan for offenders. The move came after a spate of confrontations between dancers and sections of the public.

Shared vision

The loud music is what offends everyone, most of all students. Once, a group of students preparing for their pre-university exam, the all-important gaokao, formed a human chain outside their school to prevent the damas from their routine. In Beijing last month, 300 dancers refused to halt their dancing for a few days till the gaokao was over, saying they were finding it difficult to find a place to dance, and would not give up the one they had. Now, faced with a potential ban, the damas have become more considerate, agreeing to move some distance away and tone down the music.

Others haven’t been as polite as the students. One man had to go to jail after he fired a double-barrelled shotgun to scare them away. Earlier, he had set his dogs on them. Some people have thrown excrement, others, engine oil on them. Most of these assailants have been residents of buildings outside which the women dance. In one city, 600 residents pooled in to buy an expensive sound amplifier system that they used to blare a siren and broadcast announcements the moment the dancers put on their music. The authorities had to intervene and instal a central loudspeaker system which they could control.

What started off as a beneficial pastime seems to have turned into an obsession. Photographs of half-a-dozen women passengers dancing on the side of an expressway when their bus was caught in a traffic jam, or just two of them dancing in a hotel lobby, have surfaced. But all this was looked upon indulgently till they took their passion abroad. Pictures of damas dancing outside the Louvre in Paris and in Moscow’s Red Square haven’t been received warmly at home.

But a ban on them would be too harsh. As the women say, their mothers had no such opportunity, nor did they when they were young. Grandmothers either worked in the fields or looked after grandchildren. Today, at least in the cities, many of them have been freed of these tasks. But in lieu of the community life that prevailed earlier, what they face are small empty homes. Dancing with others in the open is a dream come true.