Square Dancing Catches on with Young and Old in Beijing

The homiest of America’s cultural exports is starting to catch on among college kids and their parents looking to kick up their heels and have a carefree good time in Beijing, according to a report published Wednesday by the official Xinhua news agency.

Swinging your partners and do-si-doing to raucous fiddling was introduced to Beijingers in 1991 by an expat from Texas. Enough people found the new activity to offer a fun respite from more staid and fashionable ways to spend their evenings that it has grown steadily mainly on the strength of enthusiastic word of mouth.

One club called the Sunshine Square Dance Club attracts mostly retirees willing to pony up 10 yuan ($1.63) for a three-hour training session in which members practice moves and learn new ones from a Taiwanese dance instructor and square dance caller. They also get a kick out of dressing up in imported western shirts, ruffled skirts, as well as some cowboy hats and boots.

“There is no fixed pattern in square dance. Dancers have to be constantly alert to the callers spontaneous commands,” said Zhang Jian who founded the club in 2008. “Those who join us in square dancing have to love a challenge.”

One reason for square dancing’s growing popularity is its image as a respectable way to socialize in a way that’s much less image-conscious than people tend to be in everyday life. Couples and singles can mingle without the overtly sexual undertones that can often permeate modern dance clubs. Much of it takes place right out on the streets of Beijing, especially on summer nights.

In many neighborhood or parks lively country music blares out of boom boxes while callers bark directions into a microphone.

The old folks don’t have a monopoly on good clean fun. Square dancing and hillbilly music is also catching on among Chinese twenty-somethings as it has been with young Americans. Young people crowd into a microbrewery located in the city’s hutongs — narrow alleyways amid traditional homes — to listen to a the Hutong Yellow Weasels play old American folk songs.

“City people had pianos,” explains Yellow Weasels’ upright bassist and co-founder Chris Hawke. “But you can’t get a piano up a mountain.”

“Kids, you know, they feel dorky going to dance in the park with their parents,” Hawkes explained about his youthful following. “So, we’re doing pretty much the same thing, but they feel less dorky about joining in.”

Over 100 songs from the band’s Hillbilly Karaoke songbook has been translated into Chinese with the help of a female student at Communications University of China named Sun Siyu who was surprised at the subject matter of the songs.

“They’re bloody, about sex,” said Sun. “They’re very different from Chinese folk songs.”