Oasis of Line Dancing

Square Dancing or Line Dance?

17/04/2015 14:24

Not too long ago, we highlighted a popular dance, ‘Little Apple’ from China and its spread to many parts of the linedancing world. In this article, we look at how the Chinese in PRC do line dancing or square dancing (广场舞).

I would say this is a form of line dancing. Why? First, the dancers lined up in ranks and files, or in lines and dance together to series of repeated steps such as linedancing. Next, most dances are easy routines although some are complicated and demanding, just like the high intermediate and advanced ones in linedancing. Thirdly, more in jest, there are more women than men, just like linedancing – would you agree?

We have engaged and joined a session in a ‘square’ along the main boulevard in Chengdu, Western China last year during our vacation tour, and the group of about 25 friendly women accepted the 5 of us (1 guy and 4 ladies) readily. They even clapped earnestly when we hurriedly left (after about 3 dances) as we had to catch the bus. It’s just like linedancing and we have no problem doing the dances – difficult to follow initially, and we catch on as the music progress… 

Square dancing is an exercise routine performed to music in the squares, plazas, parks or any open space. It is popular with middle-aged and retired women who have been referred to as "dancing grannies" in the English-language media. Due to its low cost and ease of participation, it has been estimated to have over 100 million practitioners, according to CCTV, the country's official television network. The groups congregate in the early morning and evening, any time of year, at parks or public squares, or anywhere they can find enough space, regardless of what other use that space may nominally have, such as a parking lot.

What about the music? The music is usually broadcast from a portable CD player and amplifier on wheels, powered by lead-chloride or vehicle battery. That’s familiar, we use that for linedancing classes, too. Accompaniment varies - some groups dance to Western pop songs, but most choose Chinese popular songs with a dance beat, such as the 2014 hit ‘Little Apple’ or older hits from the 1950s.

How did it start and evolved into square dancing (or should we say ‘line dancing in China’)? Dancing for exercise has roots in both ancient and modern Chinese history. It has been recorded as development millennia ago in China, and During the Song Dynasty the public spaces of cities were noted for their use in performance. Most of the women who square dance came of age during the Cultural Revolution, when folk dances such as ‘yangge’ were widely performed. Some have confirmed that this habit is one of their reasons for taking part, although the benefits of the exercise (including health benefits) and socialization opportunities also play a role.

Its popularity notwithstanding, square dancing has been the subject of considerable controversy in the 2010s due to complaints of noise pollution in the evening or morning hours. Dancers in China's increasingly populous cities congregate in public areas because there are few dedicated facilities where they could go. Nearby residents who have been disturbed by the high volume of multiple dance groups' musical accompaniment, especially late in the evening and early in the morning when they are trying to sleep, have sometimes reacted violently.

In 2015 the Chinese government reacted to these complaints and incidents by prescribing a set of standardized routines for all dancers to follow, claiming they would be culturally unifying and healthier. The move was met with widespread criticism. Some Chinese complained that it did nothing to address the noise issues; others said the dancers should be free to choose their own routines. The real problem, yet others said, was not only the lack of better places for the dancing but the lack of other social opportunities for the women. The government soon clarified that the routines it created and promoted were only meant as healthy alternatives to existing ones and were not required.

Let us all pray and hope that square dancing will continue and be a part of the healthy lifestyle of China, just like linedancing in other parts of the world. Next time, when you are in China and when you witness such group congregrate, show your support by joining them for a brief dance. Can all line dancers do just that to show our support? Thank you! 

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Some health benefits from dancing:

"It's good for my health to be able to come out and exercise," a retiree told the Los Angeles Times. "I used to be quick to lose my temper, but now nothing bothers me," a similarly-aged retired paper mill worker explained to the The New York Times about the effect square dancing had had on her. "When I dance, I forget all my cares. And I can also hike up mountains with little effort."

A recent survey found that Shanghai residents have more tolerance for square dancing. According to the report, 75% of residents supported the group dancing, and 73% of young residents supported it. Beyond that, most residents said they thought guangchangwu is good for health, both mental and physical – 62% saw regular dancing as exercise and recreation, and 61% believed it helps elderly people expand their social circles and dispel loneliness.