He held his hands high in the air as 10 women clutching guns circled him, marching to a patriotic tune. However, Zheng Xiaoyan was sanguine as he stood outside a shopping mall in Beijing. The guns were plastic and the 56-year-old has often played the role of a Japanese soldier, as the leader of this amateur dance troupe.
Despite the live band, well-honed choreography and ear-splitting volume, the gathering is a nightly occurrence rather than occasional gala performance. The subzero temperatures had whittled down the group, which in summertime can boast more than 100 participants.
“The colder the better. We won’t get any illnesses; our immune systems have been boosted,” Zheng said. “It is our duty to put on a show for people walking by.”
China’s amateur dance troupes — overwhelmingly female, and almost always retired or middle-aged — have colonized its parks, housing compounds and quasi-public spaces outside shopping malls.
However, their audiences are often reluctant thanks to their loud music and tinny amplifiers.
In recent months, bitter complaints have metamorphosed into action: from pupils protesting in a park because the group there was disturbing their studies, to direct attacks on performers. In Chengdu, angry residents hurled water balloons.
In Wuhan and Changsha, they threw faeces. And in November a Beijing man stood trial for illegal possession of firearms, after firing a double-barreled shotgun into the air to express his rage at dancers.
“I used to live next to the fifth ring road and felt it was too loud, so I moved to this compound for peace. I never thought it would be noisier,” he told Chinese media.
While Zheng and other dancers stress the health benefits of dancing outside — even in China’s smog-choked cities — they do not have much choice. There are few affordable or free indoor spaces in cities.
“Decades ago most people belonged to work units, and these units would provide them with public indoor activity rooms. Now, after the reform and opening, [those] have generally disappeared,” said Jing Xiaofen, an urban sociologist at the Northwest Agriculture and Forestry Ministry.
People also have more time to pay attention to health and leisure and organize themselves rather than relying on official activities.
“Now we’re facing the market transformation and things that can bring people together are very hard to find. Dancing in squares has become a way to connect those retirees,” said Dai Jianzhong (戴建中), of the Beijing Academy of Social Sciences. “People in their 60s and 70s ... didn’t have the chance to experience cultural diversity, and singing and dancing turned out to be the only way to have fun.”
For women, in particular, it is a chance to forge new bonds, said Xue Xinya (薛新婭), director of the faculty of sociology and social work at NorthWest University.
“In the countryside you can chat with your neighbor. But in the city, dancing in the squares offers a platform for old ladies to make friends and escape their loneliness,” she said.
Unfortunately, that development has clashed with another: people’s growing sense of their rights and personal space.
While groups say they meet outside shopping centers so that they do not disturb residents, many dance in or near housing compounds.
“Older people have a basic need of entertainment, just as people need to eat and wear clothes. I understand that,” Changsha resident Ms Zhou said.