A teenager in yellow jeans shifted a little into a shadow of a dance step, furtively mimicking the handful of more exuberant men and women twirling and gesturing gracefully in the center of the clearing. A man in a suit sits on a bench, flipping through the music on his karaoke machine, filling the area between three large trees with a few bars at a time of music both grand and pop. The dancers are unconcerned, continuing their movements and tailoring them every minute or two to the new music.
This was just the beginning. This is what I came here, to Purple Bamboo Park, to see. This was my first day “off” in a week of interviews and facility tours across Beijing, two to three each day. Today I spent walking—over 8 miles all told—visiting places that people we interviewed mentioned as significant to their well-being. Time and again we heard that the “health dances in the park” were where someone got out to, socialized and exercised. So here I was, in this enormous park that is only the seventh largest in Beijing, looking for dance.
I had been wandering around for hours, watching joggers wind through the bamboo groves, parents and children and elders using the public cardio and self-massage equipment. I was actually on my way out, ready to give up, when I stumbled on this scene in a clearing, surrounded by benches and coat racks, with a few dancers and their audience.
A discordant blare broke the mad rhythm of the indecisive karaoke box.
There was another speaker on wheels in the clearing, louder, indicating they were ready to provide the music now. The style was older—chanting choirs and a vaguely military rhythm. The handful of pioneers dancing to the light of the setting sun became more synchronized in their movements. As they danced, a cluster of a dozen people approached the new music master with friendly greetings, then fanned out to join the dancing. (Adding more videos when I get around to editing them. I took a lot of video. Video is slow.)
As twilight set in I was now swaying on the edges of a sizable group of thirty or so people, arrayed roughly in a grid, stepping and swaying and gesturing in unison. Sometimes they would rearrange, and the men and women would trade-off in some pre-determined pattern. Another few dozen people were on the outskirts like me, swaying and stretching and bouncing in a more partial mode of participation. The ages now ranged from 16 to 60.
I noticed I could hear other music now. I skirted the group and wound my way to the next clear spot—a wide plaza by one of the park gates. There fifty or so women with bright red pom-poms and fans did their own choreographed thing. As I watched them someone set up another karaoke machine on the bench on the other side of the widening path from me, and before I knew it there were 3-4 couples doing competition-level ballroom dancing in suits and dresses, with a fast-gathering circle of fans. Just beyond them in the gathering gloom, over the heads of men clustered around dimly lit games of mahjong, was yet another dance area in a wooded courtyard, filled with several dozen couples swaying.
A gregarious autodidact approached me, eager to practice his English. He was in his mid fifties, all smiles over a gray Mao jacket. I asked him if this was a typical turnout for a Tuesday night in the park. He asserted that this was typical every night it didn’t rain—even in the winter people dance in coats. “The everyday people, you see, the workers, not the cadres, they can’t afford to go to fancy cinemas, things like that. This is real entertainment. And it’s free! Free for everyone. Every night.” (It’s amazing how just a few years variation in age between the cohorts in their 40s, 50s, and 60s makes all the difference in whether someone speaks the language of the cultural revolution with caution, irony, sincerity, or nostalgia. After a while the conversation turned to wages, housing, family, and the comparative necessities of a good life in the US and China.)
When I lived in China as a child, I dimly remember the early mornings in the park filled with people practicing tai chi in large groups; marching and dancing with my pre-school classmates in our yellow Transformers jumpsuits. And I’ve read Judith Farquar’s extensive and nuanced analyses of the park as a site of civic life, biopolitics, and embodied nationalism. But dim memories and scholarly imagining didn’t quite prepare me for the scale, the rigor, the total experience of hundreds of people gathering nightly to dance in public.
And in the back of my head, some distance away from my observe-describe [and participate just a little] ethnographer’s brain, I kept wondering,
“WHY CAN’T WE DO THIS BACK HOME?”
People dance a little at street fairs, at concerts, they pay to dance in clubs, in gyms. There are flash mobs and performance artists and the self-consciously alternative Burning Man frequenters. But why can’t teenagers and elders dance in any park, any time?
What would it take to get anybody to dance together as if nobody was looking, for free, in public, any night of the week?
Seriously. Any ideas?