Dancing aunties in China a nationwide phenomenon - and a source of debate

A group of women take part in an early morning dance session, as villagers look on, in Weijian village, in China's Henan province on July 30, 2014. Some have labelled the dancing women ridiculous and annoying, while others believe that they dese
A group of women take part in an early morning dance session, as villagers look on, in Weijian village, in China's Henan province on July 30, 2014. Some have labelled the dancing women ridiculous and annoying, while others believe that they deserve their own time, space and respect. -- PHOTO: AFP
"Da ma" - women, mostly middle-aged or retired and freed from the constraints of work and raising children - dance in public spaces around China in the mornings and evenings. They have been blamed for taking up too much public space and dancing in th
"Da ma" - women, mostly middle-aged or retired and freed from the constraints of work and raising children - dance in public spaces around China in the mornings and evenings. They have been blamed for taking up too much public space and dancing in the wrong places, such as rail stations and highways. -- PHOTO: CHINA DAILY/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

BEIJING (CHINA DAILY/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Some have labelled them ridiculous and annoying, while others believe that they deserve their own time, space and respect.

They are the 'da ma' - women, mostly middle-aged or retired and freed from the constraints of work and raising children - who dance in public spaces around the country in the mornings and evenings.

Their hobby has hit the headlines as it has at times pitted neighbour against neighbour, and has also provoked widespread debate.

The da ma have been blamed for taking up too much public space and dancing in the wrong places, such as rail stations and highways, and even in front of the Louvre in Paris and Red Square in Moscow.

The loud, amplified music they use has irritated neighbors, who have fought back in a variety of ways, such as using loudspeakers to drown out the "noise" and in some cases going as far as firing warning shots in the air.

In some areas, the fraught situation has led local governments to formulate laws to limit the times and locations of the dances.

"It's become a national phenomenon, rather than a neighbourhood problem," says retired Beijing resident Hu Guozhen, 57, who took up public dancing around three years ago.

"But it brings us great joy, and we have done our best to compromise, such as turning down the music and shortening the duration of the dancing period."

Every evening at 7:30pm - weather permitting - Madam Hu dances in a square at a shopping mall near her house in Majiapu, in the Fengtai district of Beijing. During the two-hour sessions, she and about 30 others dance to 20 songs played on a brick-sized portable music player.

Mdm Hu says the pastime has helped her lose weight and improved the quality of her sleep. In addition to the health benefits, she says dancing brings her spiritual joy and helps her feel young.

"My life was boring and I was isolated after I retired. I just spent my days cooking and cleaning the house. I made lots of friends after I started dancing, and I'm happy to share my life with people of my own age," she says.

The activity also helps her to keep up with the latest fashions and musical trends. At the moment, her favourite song is Little Apple by Chopstick Brothers, two acclaimed Chinese filmmakers.

Mdm Hu's group often dances along to the song, even though its simplistic beat and lyrics have led some commentators to describe it as "brain washing". The da ma also goes shopping together to buy costumes for their dancing sessions.

According to Professor Du Peng, chief of the Institute of Gerontology at Renmin University of China, the dancing craze among retired people can be attributed to a psychological change among China's elderly population.

By the end of 2013, there were more than 200 million people aged 60 and older in China, accounting for nearly 15 per cent of the population, and around 83 per cent of people in that age group engage in some sort of physical activity.

"In the past, they had less entertainment, but now they want a range of activities," Prof Du says. "Meanwhile, elderly people are much more educated nowadays and they need to enrich their lives during retirement."

Prof Du points out that the furor about public dancing is a consequence of China's rapidly aging society, which is something the government should be aware of.

Mdm Wang Baorong, who dances with 200 people aged from 45 to 75 every day from 8 am till noon, echoes that view: "The traditional image of elderly women in China is of people with white hair, a little out of shape, and wearing dark-colored clothing. But now, we are different."

On a weekend last month, Mdm Wang, 71, decked out in an army-style shirt, shorts and fishnet stockings, participated in a dance competition. "Are old people supposed to sit around and wait for death? No. We still have our beautiful days," she says.

Mdm Zhou Yehong, a 44-year-old office worker at a bank in Luohe, Henan province, started dancing in 2006. Examples of her choreography, which she posted online, have been viewed nearly 100 million times. Known as Mei Jiu, which means "Lasting Beauty", Mdm Zhou led her team in a performance at a variety show broadcast by China Central Television.

"My husband and daughter were against the dance craze because they thought we were too crazy and spent too much time on it," Mdm Zhou says.

"But now they are beginning to change their attitudes. I asked them to dance with me and to feel the atmosphere. Chinese da ma have devoted half of their lives to their families and working for the good of society. Why can't we have fun in our own right?"