The offenders usually emerge at dusk, occupying prime real estate in public plazas or parks as they sashay to treacly Chinese pop tunes with their synchronized dance moves.
In recent years, these cardigan-clad packs of “dancing grannies,” as they are known, have descended on tranquil neighborhoods across the country, occasionally provoking virulent responses from local residents who object to their amplified music.
In 2013, a Beijing man seeking to chase off retirees dancing near his home was arrested after he fired a shotgun into the air and set three Tibetan mastiffs on the group. That same year in the city of Wuhan, angry neighbors dumped feces from the upper floors of a building onto a troupe of gray-haired women below.
Last year, in Wenzhou, residents pooled $42,300 to buy a sound system to blare warnings to dancers about violating noise pollution laws.
This week, the Chinese government stepped unto the breach, issuing rules that aim to regulate the ad hoc public dancing that has become hugely popular in recent years and has pitted neighbor against neighbor.
The regulations, developed after a joint study by the General Administration of Sport and the Ministry of Culture, are intended to foster “healthy, watchable, scientific and wide-ranging” dancing, according to the state news media. To that end, an expert panel has developed 12 model routines that will be taught nationwide by instructors who have received official training.
“Dancing in public squares represents the collective aspect of Chinese culture, but now it seems that the overenthusiasm of participants has dealt it a harmful blow with disputes over noise and venues,” Liu Guoyong, chief of the General Administration of Sport’s mass-fitness department, told the state-run China Daily newspaper. “So we have to guide it with national standards and regulations.”
Here in the nation’s capital, where tens of thousands of women — mainly retirees but some much younger — flock to parks and plazas after dutifully serving their families dinner, reaction to the news was met with disdain.
“That’s ridiculous,” said Xiao Kai, 50, taking a break from dancing at an office complex that drew more than 100 women and a smattering of men. “This isn’t a business. Dancing is free and voluntary, so why does the government need to get involved?”
The government’s decision to intervene in one of the nation’s few unregulated public activities comes at a time when the Communist Party is seeking to impose its vision of popular culture, intellectual discourse and civic behavior on this nation of 1.3 billion people. Censors have increased their vigilance online, educators have been warned against teaching nefarious “Western” ideas and functionaries have declared war on what they see as excessive cleavage on television.
Xinhua said that in the future public dancing would no longer vary from place to place but would become “a nationally unified, scientifically crafted new activity that brings positive energy to the people.”
Although the Chinese media frequently lampoon the “dancing grannies” — especially the social disharmony they sometimes provoke — the new regulations appear to have hit a nerve.
On Tuesday, newspaper commentaries and social media chatter responded to the news with ridicule, with many complaining that the regulations had largely sidestepped the issue of noise that is at the heart of many complaints.
“What the grannies need are venues, not regulated routines,” the online news portal RedNet wrote. “Only an increase of public sports venues can satisfy urban and rural residents’ need for fitness routines such as football and square-dancing, and lessen the phenomenon where square-dancing disturbs residents and takes up all the parks and public spaces.”
Another commentary posted by the Xinmin Evening News said the government would do better to address the yearning for social interaction among the nation’s booming population of retirees. “The biggest tragedy is not the square dance by grannies, but the fact that grannies have nothing else to do than square-dance,” it said.
Public dancing in China took root in the 1990s, its ranks fed by the growing legion of women whom the government forces into retirement in their mid-50s.
These days, there are scores of different dance styles to choose from. On Tuesday night, along the landscaped fringe of highway known as the Second Ring Road, there was a waltz group, a troupe whose participants dressed in green fatigues and danced to songs popularized during the Korean War, and scores of low-impact routines whose detractors call the “zombie dance” because their participants tend to shuffle along with arms held in front of them.
Asked about noise complaints, one 58-year-old retired public servant threw her head back with a laugh and did a little jig. “The louder the music, the more fun it is,” she said.
In interviews, many women described how their lives had been transformed after taking up dance. “I used to be quick to lose my temper, but now nothing bothers me,” said Yu Xiuhua, 64, a former paper mill worker who was prancing to a 1960s-era song about the liberation of Tibet.
“When I dance, I forget all my cares. And I can also hike up mountains with little effort.”
Guidelines on when and where dance activities should be held, and how loud the music should be, have yet to be developed, but preparations are underway for a national outdoor dancing association to “strengthen management and promote healthy development” of the activity, according to a report on the website of China Culture Daily, the official newspaper of the Ministry of Culture.
Videos of the new dances that were posted online Monday prompted a torrent of derision, with some people saying the routines were too challenging for amateurs.
“Who pays the medical bills if the grannies hurt themselves doing these?” asked someone on the microblog account of the national broadcaster, CCTV.
But in an interview Tuesday night, Wang Guangcheng, a 29-year-old fitness trainer who choreographed the routines, said they were easier than they looked. “I tested them on several groups of grannies, and they had no problem,” he said. “Some even asked that the moves be more complicated.”
Mr. Wang said many of the popular routines he saw on the streets of Chinese cities provided inadequate exercise. His goal, he said, was to come up with alternatives that worked the entire body, while introducing the dancing public to more up-to-date styles like samba and Zumba. “I want to see more young people dancing in public squares,” he said.
On Monday, some news outlets took a different tack, suggesting that public dancing not only provoked social strife, but also could be ruinous to the body. The Taiyuan Evening News quoted a sports medicine expert who said that square-dancing, as it is called, was potentially dangerous, especially if practiced for more than an hour at a time.
As she took a break from a synchronized line dance on Monday night, Wang He, 47, scoffed at the suggestion that dancing might be unhealthy. Ms. Wang, who wore a spangled blue spandex top, said the alternative was far less healthy. “It’s much better than sitting at home and just watching TV,” she said.
Austin Ramzy contributed reporting from Hong Kong. Becky Davis and Mia Li contributed research from Beijing.
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