China tells square dance aunties to stay away from cemeteries

BEIJING (AFP) - China's most ubiquitous public performers - lively groups of primarily elderly women who show off their moves in outdoor squares - have been ordered to avoid dancing on graves and spreading superstitious beliefs.

The dancers are known to blare old-school music from portable speakers, often taking over entire blocks in vibrant matching outfits.

In a set of guidelines released Monday (Nov 13), the country's central sports authority outlined "strict regulations" for square dancers, so named for their chosen venues as opposed to their dance style.

Dancers must not congregate in "solemn places like martyrs' cemeteries" or "use square dancing to illegally make money and spread feudal, superstitious beliefs", according to the new rules.

Rather, the energetic performers should contribute to the establishment of a "harmonious society", said China's General Administration of Sport.

The notice, which updates regulations initially introduced in 2015, seeks to address persistent issues such as space constraints and noise complaints.

For many of China's 222 million elderly aged 60 and over, dancing in public has become key to staying fit and staving off the loneliness of ageing.

But these retired women known as "damas" do not always have eager audiences: residents in some neighbourhoods have accused them of disturbing the peace, and they have had to square off with basketball players and other athletes for outdoor space.

In Chinese, "dama" is a colloquial term used to describe rambunctious elderly women - also called "aunties" or "grannies" - who congregate in loud groups, dance in public squares and mind other people's business.

The government has acknowledged the need for more public sports facilities in China, where the average recreational space per individual is less than one-tenth of that in the United States.

Meanwhile, Beijing is also looking to curb unsavoury behaviour that may spawn from the groups' tightknit nature.

This August, members of a debt-collecting "auntie gang" received jail sentences of up to 11 years for using gangster-like tactics to collect money or force people from their homes.

They reportedly spat at their victims or tore off their clothes to coerce them into compliance. A portion of the women had met through square dancing.