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In a sparkling white cap and oversized sunglasses, 55-year-old retiree Zhang Yongli and dozens of neighbours liven up a Shanghai park by doing the jitterbug, part of a public dance craze that has become China national pastime.

Every day, an estimated more than 100 million people — dubbed “dancing aunties“ as they are primarily older women — take over squares and parks to tango, waltz, and grind out everything from flamenco to Chinese traditional dance.


Complaints over speakers blaring late at night have ensued. But toes are tapping to an ever-quickening beat as “square dancing” — as it is known in China — booms.

Teams are competing in dance-offs featuring thousands of contestants, while a thriving market of dance-related paraphernalia and mobile apps catches the attention of the business world. Even the government has jumped on the bandwagon to extol the health benefits.

“Square dancing happens wherever there is a square,” said Wang Guangcheng, a fitness instructor and choreographer who helps the government devise dance routines and is widely known as China’s “Square Dance Prince”.

Over 240 million Chinese are 60 or older, a number expected to double by 2050.

Zhang “was sitting at home, doing nothing” after retiring five years ago undergoing treatment for diabetes, high blood pressure and cholesterol.

“Since I started dancing, my (health) indicators are now normal. I no longer need medication,” she said.
A 2016 national fitness plan stresses “square dancing” as a team sport to be “vigorously developed” and last year it became an official event at China’s National Games.
Shanghai retiree Li Zhenhua‘s team worked with a professional instructor for weeks, enduring the winter chill and the summer heat of their local square to train for a months-long citywide contest that culminated in August.
The team, drawn mostly from China‘s ethnic Korean minority, took the title with their traditional Korean dances, beating out 750 other troupes. But it has really taken off lately as an increasingly prosperous China finds more leisure time, and nearly every neighbourhood park or square today is enlivened by dancers availing themselves of the free exercise.

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