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Dancers get in step to build a community

Updated: 2014-12-12 07:45
By Zhu Lixin (China Daily)

A popular dance trend that's swept across China has helped relocated rural residents integrate in an unfamiliar environment, as Zhu Lixin reports from Hefei, Anhui province.

For many middle-aged Chinese women, the square dance, a type of line dancing performed in public squares, is a popular form of exercise, but for people who have relocated from the countryside to the city, it's also an important social activity that promotes community spirit.

As founder and head of a 300-member square dance troupe, Kong Zhengnian, a resident of the Baohe district of Hefei, the capital of East China's Anhui province, is a popular figure among the community, which was relocated a couple of hundred meters to Yicheng township in Hefei in 2010.

"She has not only shown us a new way of exercising, but also created a new social connection among us old neighbors and friends, which helps to make the new city life feel less alien," Huang Xiaoyun, a 50-something member of Kong's dance group, said.

When Kong and her neighbors were relocated to the city four years ago, the 51-year-old was concerned about the fact that she weighed almost 90 kilograms. "It made me feel inferior to other people, but the square dance helped me rediscover my self-confidence", she said.

Although she had never heard of the dance before moving to the city, Kong was entranced at first sight. However, her weight held her back: "I participated in some of the dances, but it was difficult to follow the other dancers, and some of them even laughed at me and called me stupid and fat."

In response, Kong decided to establish a troupe of her own. Her high school education makes her one of the best-educated people in her community, in which most of the middle-aged women are semi-literate at best. Kong used the computer skills she had painstakingly learned over several years to search for videos of square dancing, and then taught herself the steps.

When she had mastered the dance, Kong bought a music player and an electric extension cable and set up the equipment in the local community square so she and her friends could dance almost every night.

Growing popularity

"At the beginning, there weren't many of us, and we just danced for fun, to enjoy ourselves, but as time progressed, people from the neighborhood began to join in too," Kong said.

The dance group now has more than 300 members, most of them women in their 40s and 50s, and the regular exercise has seen Kong's weight fall to about 65 kg.

"Most of the other groups require the members to pay a subscription to cover the cost of hiring facilities and to pay for the electricity. In my group, though, I cover all the expenses myself.

In 2010, Kong's community was Anhui's largest-ever relocation project, a record that stood until last month when an even larger community project was completed just a few hundred meters from Yicheng, which now has a population of 40,000.

Liu Fengyun, a local community official, said the dance group has played a major part in making the relocation a success: "The square dance is not only one of the most convenient and popular ways to exercise, but more importantly, it's a new cultural phenomenon that has helped people adapt to their new lives."

Before Kong and her friends moved into the high-rise apartment blocks in Baohe, most of them led typical village lives.

"The houses were not as close to one another as the apartment buildings here, but we had closer relations in the village because it was more convenient to visit our neighbors' homes, and we felt free to do so," Kong said

"Every household left their door open as long as someone was at home. Now, in the apartment buildings, everything has become much more complicated. We don't really know about each other's lives behind those tightly closed doors."

Because most residents no longer have fields to tend, they have to seek work in the city, but few have received a good education or have technical skills to exploit. As a result, many become doorkeepers, street cleaners, or supermarket workers, while others stay at home to help the family raise the grandchildren. However, the money the residents received as relocation compensation has alleviated most of their financial concerns.

"One thing is certain: With our new apartments and the demolition compensation we got from the government, we became 'rich' almost overnight," according to Kong, who believes that "life needs some fun", and thinks square dancing is the best way to make people happy and build a contented community.

Xu Xinchun, a member of Kong's group, said: "We feel that we are even closer to one another during the dances. Without the square dance, we would be so lonely."

The growing popularity of the dance led Kong to choose 30 of the most enthusiastic and agile members of her group to form a professional team that participates in square dance competitions in Hefei.

"The competitions are mainly organized by either the local communities or real estate developers", Kong said, adding that her team has won four first prizes this year alone.

New world record

On Nov 18, Kong and 11 other dancers representing Anhui province took part in the world's biggest line dance, as 25,703 dancers set a new Guinness World Record in Hangzhou in East China's Zhejiang province. "We are very proud to have participated and to be have been part of the record," she said. "The whole process, from online interviews to the final show, took about five months and cost more than 20,000 yuan, which I paid."

As a Buddhist, Kong ran an incense workshop for more than nine years before her community was relocated, and was the first female employer in her village.

"I have to confess that the manufacture of incense is not very environmentally friendly, so as urbanization progressed, we had to abandon the business," she said, adding that soaring land prices also played a part in ending the business.

Although the square dancing craze has become hugely popular in China, critics have complained that the activity is antisocial because of the loud music and the large numbers of people that congregate in public places. Kong said she is always looking for ways to minimize disruption and avoid disputes with her non-dancing neighbors.

"As long as we don't disturb the other residents, we'll keep on dancing and enjoying our lives," she said.

Contact the writer at zhulixin@chinadaily.com.cn

(China Daily 12/12/2014 page6)

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