Square dancing and gender

When I first read a piece of news in 2014 with the title that “Chinese senior citizens broke new dancing ground – Red Square in Moscow – with square dancing”, I felt amused and amazed that Chinese aunties were really brave enough to bring their enthusiasm for square dancing abroad. Square dancing, a type of dance popular with the elderly in China, has been launched anywhere at any time, such as at subway exits, in train carriages and even on the expressway, home and abroad. China’s national sports governing body is aiming to build the reputation of square dancing as a mass exercise this year as it prepares for the implementation of the five-year fitness plan.

Square dancing has prevailed among middle-aged to elderly woman who dance in groups in public places in many cities across China. Several benefits of square dancing have been widely recognized, such as good form of exercise, easy to do and promoting socializing among neighbors and friends. Square dancing is a dancing form just like “radio calisthenics” which every student under high school would experience. It is gender free, which means the moves of the dance are not particularly designed for women (see sample video below). However, men seldom join the square dancing with women. What’s strange is that men are willing to join other forms of public dancing such yangko or ballroom dancing. One reason is that different from other public dancing form, square dancing have certain role settings, men can find their position easily. When it comes to square dancing, dancers are independent individuals and men won’t show any superiority to women (in ballroom dancing men is the leader). Such dancing then be seen as a women thing. The other explanation is that compared to men, women are more willing to socialize so that they are more adaptable in square dance which is open to anyone at any time and in where social relation could be easily built.

Link: Square dancing in China

For women, square dancing is not only a form of exercise or socialization, it also reveals the role of women in China today. Dancing in public challenges a persistent expectation—even more prevalent in rural areas—that females ought to focus their attention on household matters. Before square dancing became popular, especially in rural area, women met at each other’s homes to play cards or just walking around after dinner. While gathering is almost always socially empowering, meeting in public and putting on expressive dance moves takes women visibility to new heights.

For the female leaders of a square dancing group, it is a valuable opportunity to show their specialty and rebuild social status.

In addition, social media encourages these women’s freedom from the household and traditional gender roles by providing a digital space that complements their use of public space. The dancers choose songs, share dance moves, and spread rehearsal schedules to group members by using Chinese social media platforms for the “backstage work”. This closed online space also provides a comfortable venue for discussing the frustrations of domestic life.

Some comments say that square dancing is a retrospective ritual of collectivism and planned economy. However, it is more like a physical and emotional demand for interaction of the elderly, especially in an aging society. Square dancing would play an important role in the lives of the elderly.


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