I heard them before I saw them.
The rhythmic drum of their music guided me along the street and around the corner. I allowed my ears to lead my body, drawn by the sweet but compelling melody brought to me on the gentle morning breeze.
Usually they were out early in the morning, or conversely in the evenings a little before dusk, so I hadn’t expected to enounter them at just after after 9am.
The paved concrete square which greeted me at the turn of the street was a foot above street level, twenty feet long by twenty feet wide. Shade from the tropical rich yellow sun was provided by luscious, age old trees, thick with scented foliage.
A small, ugly black speaker was placed unobtrusively to one side where it could be heard and not seen as it pumped out a steady beat.
Women danced with men. Women danced with women. Grandchildren and toddlers newly discovering how their legs worked, teetered in and out of the swaying couples. It was hard to tell who was having more fun, the young or the old.
I wandered who had taught these senior citizens to hold their backs so straight and their necks so elegant? Shoulders and upper arms in a perfect square.
Who whispered to them that this was the best way to move spines, hips and legs in perfect form in order to sway in graceful harmony?
Origins of the Dancing Damas
Apparently these ladies, aged from 60 upwards, began meeting in communal outdoor spaces in their youth during the time of China’s Cultural Revolution. They’d been previously displaced by the upheavals at the time which had split families and disrupted communities. Following the rule of thought at that time, they embraced the idea of collectivism over individualism,substituting self-interest with a larger concern for others.
The square dancing activity re-inforces, or maybe brings back, that long time sense of community safety and tribalism.
However, it seems that all is not well these days,
Some residents feel that the Dancing Damas are taking over their communities with too many people, too many beats and well, just too much noise for twice a day, seven days a week. As a result police in some local areas have taken measures to restrict the duration of their dances as well as the number of participants allowed.
Added to this, are increasing media reports about the Dancing Damas gathering together during holidays overseas to do their routines, potentially embarrassing their nation. The locals abroad, however, don’t seem to mind.
I wonder if this tradition will continue when today’s 30 year olds reach a similar age. When I ask my friends and colleagues of both sexes, they reply that it’s just an activity which keeps their grandparents happy.
Communal square dancing, like Tai Chi, Badminton and Physical Exercise routines is a normal part of outdoor life in China.
For the elderly who grew up in a different era and have faced constant, fast-moving change, it’s a unique and effective way of keeping active and holding onto ties from the past whilst silencing the threatening breaths of possible loneliness.
All that’s required is a shared love of classical Chinese music and a willingness to express this love through movement.
Oh and you can bring the grandchild along too, if you wish