Happy, healthy, and making new friends: Guangchangwu and the lived relationships of participants

August 2022
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Guangchangwu 广场舞, or square dancing, is a mass dance practice performed in public squares that has become extremely popular among the middle-aged and elderly in China, especially women. The narrative surrounding guangchangwu online and in media presents the participants as cranky, outdated, belligerent troublemakers. But after participating with a group of guangchangwu dancers who met every evening in the park located in my apartment complex in Shenzhen, I understood this representation to be undeserved. Noting that the voices of the participants were largely missing from the narrative, this dissertation shares the voices of guangchangwu participants in Shenzhen, China, as they describe their experiences of dancing in large groups in public spaces. This ethnographic study explores the practice of guangchangwu, describing how participants use the practice to stay “happy, healthy, and making new friends.” It examines embodiment within the practice of guangchangwu and how this relates to the role of dance in China and what it means to be Chinese; the distinct Chinese experience of public space and how guangchangwu participants subvert said places for their own personal and group needs; and how the experiences of the guangchangwu participants influence their engagement, exploration, and performance of the aging female body. My findings suggest that contrary to the negative representation of guangchangwu I had initially found online, my participants were warm, welcoming women craving camaraderie, health, and happiness within a community of their own creation. This research is important because it puts into conversation the often-neglected voices of the dance participants with the voices of journalists and researchers observing and writing about the dancing event.