It’s a sight we rarely see outside of a Disney film — colorful gowns and suits swirling in synchronized formation as if in a ballroom instead of on a sweltering street corner in China. Like a scene from fiction, the senior citizens show up in their formal wear to perform the foxtrot, quickstep, and waltz for their audience i.e. anyone passing by in the street.
These amateur public dance troupes are popping up all over China. It’s a way for the elderly to meet friends, socialize, and stay active within their community. More importantly, performing gives people a sense of purpose and a point of pride .
These dance groups should be on the list of China’s imports to America. Although some US cities provide senior-centric activities like bingo nights and trips to the local casino, there are few athletic opportunities available to people who aren’t part of a paid senior community. Public dancing allows people to be creative while giving a gift back to their neighborhood.
Chinese students consistently outperform their American counterparts on international exams in core subjects like math, science, and reading. Could their secret start with exercises? Every morning, schools across China perform a series of stretches and calisthenic movements before class begins.
Some schools gather on the blacktop in the morning to do exercises led by their teachers while music blares from a loudspeaker. Other times, students will lead their peers in daily movements in the classroom before the lesson begins. From pre-school through high school, students start their day by getting their blood flowing and brain working instead falling asleep during their first period class of the day.
Walking down a street in Shenzhen on a bright afternoon, you’ll likely notice a sea of colorful ladies’ parasols being used to protect delicate skin from the sun. And the streets and sidewalks are just as crowded as the roads and highways. China may have more cars (and worse pollution) than any other place in the world, but many people still walk or bike as their main form of transportation. It helps that Chinese cities and towns are set up in a way where most things you need are within walking distance. And that’s great, because walking and biking is the easiest and cheapest way to stay active.
But large American suburbs and urban food deserts have conditioned us to immediately hop in the car whenever we need to get somewhere. Walking a few blocks to the grocery store instead of driving, or choosing the stairs over the elevator adds thousands of step to your day, which gets you closer to the golden 10,000 step count.
The Chinese have their own version of the American Zumba craze: Women of all ages dance around in bright clothing to booty shaking Latin beats, but the Chinese version is a lot cheaper than a $50 box set of DVDs. Guangchangwu means “public square dance” and more commonly refers to a group of middle aged women doing synchronized choreographed dances outside.
Groups of women, sometimes called “dancing grannies,” exercise in the morning and evening to ear-splitting music (to the neighbors’ chagrin). Their movements combine several styles of dancing and can vary between region. Having once made the faux pas of joining in the front line as a beginner, I learned that the forward spots are reserved for the best dancers and newbies belong in the back.
Again, the Chinese have turned fitness into a form of social recreation that can be inclusive to the public. It’s a fun and challenging way to exercise and keep your mind sharp. It gives older people the chance to make new friends and get fresh air. And the US has plenty of parks and open areas that can be used for dancing. Now so long as we can keep the volume down so as to not cause hearing loss…
Around the 1950s, the Chinese government created a daily exercise regime that was meant to get the country into shape as fast as possible. Every morning and afternoon, they broadcasted a soundtrack to which workers would collectively practice pre-choreographed exercises and stretches.
Nowadays this tradition is giving way the Western-style gym where people can workout on their own time whenever it’s convenient. However, modern workers both in the US and China often fail to make time to disengage from work to de-stress and move around. Forcing ourselves to take five or ten minutes out of our day, regardless of phone calls and meetings, would make us less sedentary and more energized.