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The Power of Public Square Dancing

In China, public square dancing is now more popular among the younger generation, but how did this movement even begin? To answer that question, we turn to the original dancing aunties. (Photo credits: Li Lin from

Starting around sunset, there is a common scene you will encounter in any Chinese city and town: people going for evening walks. This is when electric signs of restaurants light up the streets, and people emerge from their homes satisfied with a good meal, knowing that the day’s work is done. Broad boulevards are built for pedestrians and cyclists to converge, and people from all backgrounds go at their different paces. Some couples are pushing their toddler children in strollers, the elderly sit around granite benches under the tree, and younger professionals briskly walking with earphones in. 

In the 1980s, China underwent major urban renewal projects to accommodate its growing urban population. On your evening walk, you will also encounter squares – large, flat, open areas – built for people to gather. 

The squares emanate with rhythmic and upbeat music. You see middle-aged and elderly ladies (dama) dancing in a square formation. No, it is not a Zumba class. While there is a show component, it’s not strictly a performance, either. Moreover, the arm gestures and footsteps are not solely physical activities for these dama, as calisthenics can be done individually. What emerges from these ladies is a more recent activity: public square dancing.

The first mention of guang chang wu (public square dancing) was in 1999. In 2014, one Chinese scholar estimated that there were nearly 100 million women who participated in public square dancing, but this number is largely an underestimate given the spontaneity of the activity. Formations can range from a dozen to over one hundred participants. At the front of each dance formation is a group leader with a boombox, known as the “teacher” of the group. As you move away from the boombox, with each row, the formality decreases. There are children joining in from the sides. Onlookers attempt to follow along the dance moves. The juxtaposition of the spectators and the well-versed front row illuminates how there is no strict dividing line between show and audience.   

It may be jarring and removed to a foreign observer, but to explore why public square dancing – especially for elderly women – is such a staple (and not simply a curiosity) to Chinese evening life, we need to meet the women behind this movement. What motivates them to organize in dance every evening? As for the next generation of dancers, how will public square dancing evolve? 


The initial popularity of guang chang wu among elderly women stemmed from how the government pension system is set up. China is a patriarchal society, so while men retire at sixty years old (or at fifty-five if he is a government employee), Chinese women retire at fifty-five (or at fifty if she is a government employee). By the time she reaches retirement, women in China often already have grown children, leaving them with plenty of time on hand. One family auntie recalls how at the core of public square dancing is fitness for older women.

In addition to the institutional and exercise factors, there’s a more salient reason that drives the elderly ladies to the squares every evening: the need for social connection. Especially for smaller, tight-knit, all-female troupes, the bonds formed among the dancers create community. This is especially true in urban environments, which may lead to social isolation. The women in the front-row are more than people who join the dances every evening: as they move to the same beat and the same flow of dance, for an hour of the day, they forget life’s tribulations. They find each other through this dance, and WeChat group chats further cement their loyalty to their fellow dancers. As another auntie recalls, many dama also participate in public square dancing to “revitalize their soul.” 

Moreover, while collectivism is most prominently associated with the Chinese Communist government, Chinese agricultural societies have existed for centuries in a collectivist era. This interdependent view of the self has greatly influenced how the guang chang wu known today has been created. How guang chang wu gained popularity depended specifically on the generation of women who lived through the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and the 1978 economic reform of China’s opening-up. Chinese scholars have cited that these broader movements have precipitated the continual social and political disorganization of their lives, with these women having experienced the Red Guard period, the Countryside Movement, retirement, empty nest syndrome, as well as an intergenerational communication barrier. Finding other women through dancing was a way to overcome what Chinese scholars have cited as the biggest reason for the popularity of guang chang wu: the collective disruption in their lives. 

Outside of this tight-knit group, outside observers can also participate. While a Zumba class and a hip-hop dance performance may have strict physical boundaries, there are none in public square dancing: the observer determines to what extent he or she becomes part of the performance. While most performances are done on a platform, delineating the dancers from the audience, public square dancing is done on a flat plane, so the choice lies within the individual. Public square dancing is structured so that while there is cohesiveness, there is also a level of outside participation allowed. If you are someone who’s standing on the sidelines, you realize how porous the boundaries are: is this entertainment? Is this exercise? Is this a performance? Public square dancing demonstrates that stage presence does not have to be confined to a stage. It’s truly a phenomenon with few to no enclosures. Speaking on the phone with me, one family auntie said that it’s difficult to ignore the dama dancers on her evening walks. Pushing her toddlers in a stroller, my auntie usually passes by the female dancing troupe, with blaring music from a sound speaker. Before long, her toddler grandchildren are eager to get off the stroller and join in on the fun. Her grandchildren bobs up and down to the beat with the dancing damas, leaving my auntie to be the audience for this wild, chaotic joy. 

Another major factor that muddles this boundary is the low financial barrier to access. The vast majority of casual and self-formed dancing troupes are free. Some require a small fee to maintain speaker equipment, and more organized troupes require uniforms. In contrast, formal ballroom dancing has never taken off in popularity to the same extent as public square dancing. For many, the cost of ballroom dancing classes cannot provide the same level of entertainment and physical exercise that public square dancing can bring for free. In a separate interview, Auntie Liu, a Chinese expat from Shanghai, recalls how ballroom dancing also served the same function of combining exercise and sociality. However, the financial barrier and ballroom dancing’s association with the wealthy Westerners relegated that activity to the wealthier and more metropolitan areas. In contrast, the accessibility (limited only by the space available) of public square dancing has led to many troupes not only appearing in cities but also in the countryside. In a video recorded by the UCL Global Social Media Impact Study, you can see how even in rural areas, where poverty is higher on average, there is still a large participation in public square dancing. Clad in flexible sandals and brightly colored blouses, teh women shown in the video tap their feet to the sound of the beat. Dance movements include raising the arms up and down, twirling around, and moving the arms side-to-side. These movements are not expressions of individual freedoms as they are of their collective freedom: to be seen together as more than just mothers, wives, and homemakers.

Auntie Liu also recalls how there had always been public square dancing in the form of “public disco dancing.” However, the hip thrusts, the arm crossings, and the fast-paced music were difficult technically for most older women, and disco dancing never took hold in China. Instead, choreography associated with guang chang wu today are easy movements that evoke Chinese folk and ethnic minority dances. Dance troupe leaders often browse the internet for dance moves, including dances from ethnic minorities, and reappropriate them into dance moves that are easier for older female dancers. For example, the difficult should-arm waves of Mongolian dance are first simplified to match the ability of the elderly women dancers. Increasingly, dancers are remixing tracks to produce a fusion of many types of songs: dance workout songs contain elements of Chinese folk and reappropriated ethnic minority dance movements. Other dances heavily rely on Mandarin pop songs. In 2014, the Chopstick Brothers’ hit single, “Little Apple” took the internet by storm, and through social media platforms, female dance leaders quickly integrated the lively beat into movements that stretch the muscle and loosen the joints. To the accompaniment of other Mandarin pop songs such as “Love My China,” female dancers remember their political past and focus more on dance moves geared towards celebrating the aesthetics of Han Chinese culture. 

However, a growing number of residents, especially in urban areas, are worried about the expansion of these dancing troupes. The growing number of dancers has led to louder music from speakers, and some dancers have even trespassed private property to get a space to dance. In large cities, dancing troupes often number over one hundred, and many city dwellers complain about the loud music blasting late into the evening. Municipalities have had to regulate where and when the public square dancing can take place.  

But the fact that the government has had to regulate public square dancing speaks to the cultural significance of the phenomenon, and it’s unlikely that these elderly ladies are ready to jettison their tradition. There are reasons to believe that public square dancing will likely flourish even among younger generations. 

Expanding beyond a female-dominated activity, there is growing participation among younger adults (twenty to thirty years old) in public square dancing, and the rise of Korean pop songs has led to a whole new genre of collective dance. For younger professionals, instead of a leisurely evening walk, guang chang wu has been the routine after a long day’s work. Their dance moves are more physically intense and technical, to the delight of onlookers. Competitions are only after-thoughts, as most young people often cite “keeping fit” the main reason for participating in public square dancing. 

Nevertheless, to both the older and younger generation of dancers, guang chang wu speaks to similar experiences around the world. Whether it’s a spontaneous soccer match in Algeria or the “inclusive annual street party” of the UK’s Notting Hill Carnival, the public square dance movement in China combines the excitement and love of life in each evening’s dancing. 

Especially in wealthier regions, gyms are gaining momentum, and local districts will continue to create regulations to prevent a “tragedy of commons” in public areas. Through China’s collectivist society with the growth of social media, new forms of public square dancing are evolving and invented to accommodate the increasing urbanized lives of future generations. In one video, a principal of a school leads seven hundred students (in a limited space) to a shuffle dance to the tune of a Chinese folk song. I only wonder how the legacy of guang chang wu will change as China continues to change. And with each evening, the dama and new dance groups will preserve the collective memories of China, as the Chinese people look towards the future. 



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