How do you guangchang wu? Square dancing Chinese style

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Friday, August 18, 2017 - 09:00

Read the words ‘square dancing’ and what do you picture? Cowboy boots? Men in stetsons? Gingham as far as they eye can see? You wouldn’t be the only one. Such images may be stereotypical (yet not unreasonable) of the Western American square dance - the one populated by the romanticised image of the cowboy - but as the title of this piece intones, we’re casting our eyes toward a very different type of square dance.

Guangchang wu, is square dancing Chinese style. A much more literal affair, it refers to the daily dances which take place in China’s public squares; an activity which has over 100 million people regularly up on their feet. Each day, to music piped through mounted speakers, dancers gather in the country’s parks and central squares, to perform the choreographed routines of guangchang wu.

Mass-participation activities around health and well-being are far from a new phenomenon in China. Such performances have been a mainstay of the culture since the country’s establishment as the People’s Republic in 1949, when the nation began coming together in large groups to exercise along to radio cues. 

This practice has persisted in modern-day China, particularly in secondary schools where students often participate in daily call-and-response routines, and has seen a resurgence in businesses. From offices to hotels, many employers have been known to bring their workforce together at the start of the day for mass workplace motivational ‘rituals’.

Our main purpose is to get some exercise… it’s like a big family here, I feel free
Ma Lijun, 56, a Beijing square dancer, speaking to CNN in March 2017

For China’s regular square dancers however the motivation is less about attacking the day or making sales, and more about staying active. Dancing is a popular way for the country’s older population to exercise and socialise, and with particularly high take-up among retired women, those practicing guangchang wu have come to be known as ‘dancing aunties’. This moniker has even extended beyond the squares to become a recognised economic group, and in much the same way the US has embraced its ‘soccer moms’, China is now marketing towards its ‘dancing aunties’.

With an activity which helps keep an aging population physically active and outgoing, and also makes dance and artistry publically accessible, it may be a surprise to learn that not everyone has embraced the craze of guangchang wu.Residents who live close to popular square dancing spots have complained about the loud music which disturbs their peace daily. In 2013, the BBC reported on one person who had become so frustrated with the daily dancing they unleashed their dogs on the square-dancers outside their apartment.

Such instances are thankfully in the minority, but the increasing popularity of guangchang wu has prompted the state to take action, introducing 12 approved routines for dancers in 2015. In Chengdu some parks have installed decimeters to keep noise levels sociable, whilst in March this year authorities in Beijing established regulations which will see square dancers facing fines if they are deemed to have disturbed the peace of nearby residents.

Now, the phenomenon of guangchang wu has begun to mobilise, popping up around the world as holidaying Chinese dancers continue to perform their daily routines on their travels. Square dances have taken place everywhere from outside the Louvre in Paris to Moscow’s Red Square. And in October, guangchang wu comes to London, as part of the latest instalment of our China Changing Festival.

Guangchang wu China Changing

Thankfully we don’t have to worry about irate neighbours here at Southbank Centre, so we’ll be enjoying guangchang wu performances out on our Riverside Terrace on Saturday 7 October. And we’re inviting you to channel your inner ‘dancing auntie’ by joining us for a workshop in The Clore Ballroom earlier on the same day. 

In China there’s no denying that it’s hip to be square, so come along and see what the fuss is about by joining us for a day’s dancing, guangchang style.

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