Caixin
Apr 02, 2017 09:16 PM
BUSINESS & TECH

Outdoor Jigs, Business Gigs Growing Together in China

Wang Lingzhi performs in front of a crowd and a live-streaming smartphone. She is known as Grandma Two Pistols, as she often holds her hands in the shape of two pistols. Photos: Chen Liang/Caixin
Wang Lingzhi performs in front of a crowd and a live-streaming smartphone. She is known as Grandma Two Pistols, as she often holds her hands in the shape of two pistols. Photos: Chen Liang/Caixin

(Beijing) — Every day at 9 a.m. sharp, weather permitting, a throng of costumed dancers wearing camouflage uniforms, officer caps and dark sunglasses springs to life as a thumping beat jolts Beijing’s Taoranting Park.

The troupe with 200-plus amateur dancers is dominated by retirees, including a spry man surnamed Ji so dedicated to daily “square dancing” — which in China means group dancing in public squares, parks and other outdoor areas — that he travels to Taoranting every morning by bus from his home nearly two hours away.

Ji and his companions share a passion for China’s “sailor’s dance,” a jitterbug adaptation performed in sync by groups of dancers in matching military outfits.

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Wang Fuyuan (center) dances in front of a live-streaming smartphone on Feb. 26 at the People’s Square in Zhengzhou, Henan province. He was joined by Brother Bold (left) and the Swing Brother. Photos: Chen Liang/Caixin

Theirs and scores of other square-dancing genres are becoming increasingly popular as China’s population of retirees grows. Officials say these groups currently count more than 200 million light-footed members.

China’s square dancing movement is also attracting increasing numbers of entrepreneurs hoping to profit from the rising drumbeat of group-dance enthusiasts.

Online merchant Fang Hui, for example, every week sells more than 70,000 yuan ($10,200) worth of costumes to members of various square dancing groups, including sailor’s-dance enthusiasts.

Speaking with Caixin, Fang said Chinese retirees — especially those who dance to stay fit and socially connected — are strong consumers of health-care products. Dancing groups buy speakers and other audio equipment to provide music outdoors. And in Chinese culture, Fang noted, older family members such as group dancers often influence younger relatives’ investments and big-ticket spending decisions.

Along with retired men such as Ji, “square dancing attracts millions of dancing grandmothers,” Fang said. “The market is huge.”

Dancing groups with special skills also attract crowds and online fans. For example, free-flow “crazy square dancing” by uninhibited retirees in the city of Zhengzhou regularly entertains admiring onlookers at People’s Park as well as faraway fans who watch performances via live-streaming apps.

Members of an amateur group called the Ga Dance Troupe perform as Grandma Two Pistols, Brother Bold Head, Brother Electric Shock, Wave Man, Swing Brother, Brother Cotton Pants, and Brother Dumb, so named because he has a speech disability.

“People say what we do is crazy or stupid,” said troupe member Wang Fuyuan. “But everyone is happy when they see me in the park. I’m happy too.”

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Wang Lingzhi (center), Brother Numb (left) and Brother Bold (right) perform “fight dance,” in which one pretends to hit the others in the face. Photos: Chen Liang/Caixin

Business Opportunities

Meanwhile, businessman Fan Zhaoyin, CEO at a mobile tech company called Suzhou Laowantong Technology Co., sees dancing retirees as a happy opportunity for profits.

“Square dancing is a gateway to a market with more than 500 million senior citizens,” Fan said.

One of Suzhou Laowantong’s products is an app designed for older dancers called Love Square Dancing. The app includes free video tutorials for beginning dancers along with advertising for companies that offer a variety of products and services.

The most popular, dance-related app in China is Tangdou Square Dance, which claims more than 50 million users and received about $25 million through three fundraisers over the past two years from venture capital investors including IDG Capital, Legend Capital and Shunwei Capital.

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People dance at a basketball court in Wanning, Hainan province, on Dec. 8, 2012. Photo: Visual China

Tangdou’s app offers free tutorials and a social-networking platform for dancing enthusiasts. It profits by connecting dancers with merchants and service providers.

As of January, Tangdou’s app was averaging 400 million users per month, with each user connected for an average of more than 40 minutes.

That amount of online viewing time “is not only for learning dances but also (viewing) other content,” Tangdou CEO Zhang Yuan said.

Zhang’s business outlook is upbeat. He sees future doors opening in areas such as health care and wealth management products.

In addition to internet-related entrepreneurs, banks and investment firms that offer wealth management products to senior citizens have targeted dancing enthusiasts. For example, some firms organize dance competitions.

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About 50,000 dancers in public squares in 14 Chinese cities set a Guinness World Record for multiple-site large-scale dancing on Nov. 7. Photo: Visual China

Educators have carved out a piece of the pie by, for example, offering dancing classes. And other entrepreneurs have organized members-only dancing clubs.

Popular dancers whose performances are live-streamed on apps dedicated to the phenomenon can also cash in.

Zhengzhou park dancer Wang Lingzhi, for example, says her group’s live-streaming events attract “thousands of people,” and “every day we receive virtual gifts from fans.”

The dance expert credited with choreographing one of China’s most popular subsets of the sailor’s dance, Wang Shuyin, is one of several “square dancing leaders” who operate chat groups focusing on the genre.

Often in the wake of a thread on a Wang-related chat group about a new sailor’s-dance costume or accessory, any videos with tutorial content related to the discussion go viral among dance enthusiasts. Soon afterward, costume sales jump for companies catering to sailor’s dance fans.

Wang’s influence has thus spread to the costume manufacturing sector, surpassing the effect she’s had on dance students. “I don’t know how many (textile) factories we’ve saved,” she joked.

Human Needs

So big is square dancing that the Chinese government’s General Administration of Sport has an advocacy office called the China Line Dance Promotion Center. The center’s deputy chairman, Shan Ying, estimates more than 200 million people regularly participate in these mainly outdoor activities.

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A group of "dama," or middle-aged female dancers, don sailor suits for China's "sailor's dance" at Taoranting Park, Beijing. Photo: Yang Yifan / Caixin

Shan said some retirees join dancing groups to fill a need for socialization.

“If I dance fast enough, loneliness will never catch up with me,” said a grandmother who dances every day.

High interest among senior citizens “might be partly because most families have only one child, and adult children usually have little time to spend with their parents,” said Shan. “Square dancing makes seniors feel younger among people at their stage of life and inside a social circle.”

Other retirees see dancing as a way to stay fit without joining a gym. Wang, for example, said she got involved for health reasons.

“It looked good and I wanted some exercise, so I joined,” she said.

Dancing venues also serve as a platform for face-to-face communication “like churches in the West,” said Wu Xiaobo, a business writer and founder of Blue Lion Publishing House.

Zhengzhou’s Wang said square dancing and live-streaming performances make her “feel so happy. I feel like at least someone cares about you, someone wants to talk to you.

“I feel a sense of self-worth,” she said. “If I stop live-streaming now, I’m sure I’ll feel lonely.”

In open areas throughout the 56-hectare (138.4-acre) Taoranting Park, various dancing groups — each with hundreds of enthusiasts — can be found swinging and swaying from dawn to dusk.

Ji is one of about 200 doing the sailor’s dance every weekday. On Saturdays and Sundays, though, that number doubles.

“I have found a feeling of belonging,” Ji said.

Contact reporter Han Wei (weihan@caixin.com)

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