Public square dancing helps grannies develop a social network to counter loneliness in old age and it also keeps them physically and mentally fit.
The temperature may be minus two degrees Celsius, but Liu Fenglan and dozens of other senior Chinese women are unfazed as they dance in formation in a park. Year round, thousands of mature women perform "guangchangwu", public square dancing, twisting their way to physical and mental agility.
The dancing grannies at Society Park at Coastal Silo City, Beijing are dressed in red tracksuits emblazoned with "Dream Team, Happy Dance." Only a few, like Miss Yang, wear navy blue. She is the leader of the group.
In recent years, these grannies have become a cultural mainstay in China – and now their influence may be spreading.
Guangchangwu events were recently held in London and many are asking whether these networking and exercise occasions for the elderly could help ease problems of loneliness and poor health in countries with aging populations.
In her study on guangchangwu, Maggie Chao, a researcher at Simon Fraser University in Canada, said that public dance, and collective exercise as a whole, has had a long history in contemporary Chinese society.
Rural women historically performed yangge, a popular rural folk dance mainly in northern regions, as a collective activity aimed at inspiring a plentiful harvest.
A few decades later, migration from rural to urban centers coupled with the Chinese government's introduction of a nationwide fitness program ahead of the Olympic Games in 2008 drove low-cost physical activity and provided a boost to square dancing.
The second generation of women who migrated to cities got a chance to relive their old dance form in a modern way.
Urban planning and well-being
According to Professor Judith Farquhar of the University of Chicago, senior women dancing and exercising in public parks or squares became a unique national feature for China in the 1990s.
A majority of retired women argued that it was a service to the nation and the community for older people to get out into public places and engage in healthy activities.
"During my research, I found life-nurturing activities like dancing were a rational economic choice for these women," Farquhar told CGTN. "Many people said that they and their grown children could not afford a serious illness in old age. Dancing also helped them create a social network to counter loneliness in old age."
Urban planning has also given an aging population more chance to socialize. Municipalities have ensured that housing complexes have enough open space for residents – and are kept neat and usable.
"Local authorities ensure that our park is maintained and clean," Miss Yang said.
This prioritization of public spaces for a certain group to indulge in what can be a very noisy activity has created tension in communities. There have been confrontations between the dancers and locals.
"There are cases when dancing [grannies] have got into fights and even protested to restore their open space," according to Farquhar.
Nevertheless, guangchangwu is slowly gaining international attention. In September, China Exchange, a London-based organization, organized "It's Hip to be Square" – a series of free public dances modeled after those in China.
"In China, square dancing has been praised for providing a way for older people to exercise, socialize and be visible in society," the organizers said.