The targets of a narcotics sting in Wenzhou in January were an unlikely crowd: a group of older women at a karaoke parlour.
“Plain-clothes officers at the door of the karaoke room watched a number of elderly people go inside and suspected that they were drug users,” a police spokesman told television news.
The group had sent out invitations to the drug meet via the mobile app WeChat, with coded messages that it was time for ‘eating stewed food’. Ketamine was the hallucinogen of choice, with participants paying as much as Rmb5,000 for their evenings of indulgence.
“When the police opened the door, they were blown backwards by the loud music,” an eyewitness told Tencent News, after officers swooped on the revelling retirees. “Inside, in the dim light, there was a group of people twisting their bodies crazily.”
Three people were imprisoned for arranging the sessions, while another 17 were fined for taking part. Most were female and in their fifties.
Anti-social behaviour among older people was mentioned briefly in WiC220, but there was a surprising degree of sympathy in some of the media coverage of the partying pensioners – and certainly more than might have been extended to drug-abusing youngsters.
“This group of Wenzhou damas has nothing to do at home all day,” Tencent News explained. “They don’t get up until the afternoon, and then they pass their time taking drugs to have fun.”
Dama translates as “big mama” in Chinese and generally refers to married women between the ages of 40 and 60, usually from the middle class. The term gained popularity about two years ago when the financial writer Song Hongbing dramatised damas as routing Wall Street after buying up large quantities of gold after a price dip. Later that year they made headlines again for herd-like investment in Bitcoin, the digital currency (see WiC218).
No longer young, many damas are still active. Most have left formal employment, with the female retirement age (of 55) five years ahead of men. In the past, some retirees took on a monitoring role in local communities, reporting abnormal activity to the police. Known colloquially as the “small feet patrol”, they have since been replaced by the chengguan (generally disliked urban management officials: see WiC203).
For aging housewives there can be a lack of fulfilment too. Most women in their fifties have only had one child, and they are having to wait much longer for grandchildren than earlier generations.
In extreme cases this loss of purpose seems to have led to drug taking (although the Wenzhou party crew was much wealthier than average, which may have encouraged their experimentation).
More common is for damas to gravitate towards square dancing. WiC has mentioned these dance displays before (in one case a routine that celebrated China’s military victory over the Japanese; see WiC245). They also seem to have a therapeutic value for many of the older women. “Essentially, square dancing is a way of venting some of their frustrations. It combines social expression, exercise and recreation into one. And it lets the damas find a sense of belonging,” Tencent News says.
The People’s Daily gives an example of a typical dancer, a 57 year-old from Beijing who planned to spend her retirement taking care of a grandchild, but who is waiting for her daughter-in-law to give birth. To fill her time, the woman started to play mahjong all day. This was no good for her health and she got depressed. It wasn’t until she started to dance that her sense of vitality was renewed.
“During the dancing we encourage and praise each other, and even get applause from passersby,” she told the newspaper.
Millions of others have found meaning in square dancing, with some of the most enthusiastic devotees even taking the trend overseas. Last year, police were called to impromptu displays in Red Square in Moscow and Brooklyn in New York, for instance, while Parisians were perplexed by a pop-up performance outside the Louvre.
Back at home the media has reported on heated arguments between damas and local residents, who sometimes regard the dancing as noisy and disruptive.
In one case in 2013 a man fired a shotgun over dancers’ heads in Beijing before letting three large dogs off their leashes in an attempt to scare off the boppers.
Hence the interest last month when the government published proposals aimed at streamlining square dancing into standardised routines, with the rollout of national training over the next five months.
“Square dancing represents the collective aspect of Chinese culture, but it seems that the over-enthusiasm of participants has dealt it a harmful blow with disputes over noise and venues. So we have to guide it with national standards and regulations,” advised Liu Guoyong, the chief of the mass fitness department at the General Administration of Sport (GAS).
The new routines are based on “scientific design and public health considerations,” Liu explained, noting that an expert panel of instructors had been part of the preparations for the changes.
“The unified drills will help keep the dancing on the right track where it can be performed in a socially responsible way,” argues Wang Guangcheng, the specialist tasked with preparing 600 instructors to provide training in the 12 routines that make up the new programme.
Wang claims that dancers are going to be better protected with the new choreography than currently. “Repeated squats, for instance, will injure peoples’ knees,” he warns.
But plenty of netizens greeted news of the routines with disdain, seeing them as further evidence of meddling by the nanny state. “The regulators want to turn square dances into loyalty dancing. It sounds more and more similar to the Cultural Revolution,” one complained. “The government just wants to show its muscle,” another scoffed. “Next up, the Health and Family Planning Commission will be giving us a guide on how to make love.”
Stung by the reaction, sports officials pointed out that the recommendations aren’t mandatory. “Asking all square dancing groups to follow only one standard is definitely impossible, and we never meant to do that,” the dance unit clarified.
Domestic media is also reporting that no details for the standards have been set, like recommended volumes for music, or the places and times at which dancing is allowed.
Ironically, this is just what many of the dance critics have wanted, and there is frustration that the authorities haven’t done more to move millions of the older women off the streets.
“There’s no need to regulate dance steps as they are just a form of recreation. But what needs to be taken seriously is how to provide elderly people with proper facilities to work out without disturbing others,” one weibo user insisted.
Among the damas themselves the response to the campaign was mixed. “I will never learn those routines, they are like the mechanical morning exercises that students do in the schools, and not elegant dancing,” one greying diva vowed to the Global Times. But other dancers seemed to like the proposals, especially if they mean getting professional instruction for free. “I’m an organiser of square dances and me and all the other old people I know support the idea of the new standards,” a delighted dama wrote on her weibo.
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