Square dance craze might mean big bucks for web firms

Source:Agencies Published: 2017/1/5 18:58:39

People dance in the streets when there aren't squares available. Photo: Li Hao/GT

People dance in the streets when there aren't squares available. Photo: Li Hao/GT

People dance in the park with masks on during a smoggy day. Photo: Li Hao/GT

People dance in the park with masks on during a smoggy day. Photo: Li Hao/GT




A cellphone app that targets square dancing dama (middle-aged and elderly women) has received tens of millions in investment

The square dancing industry in China is growing larger and larger, with more and more firms seeking to profit from these dance groups

As soon as the music starts to play, everything else stops. For a few hours, it's just the women and their routines.

Every night at 6:30 pm, Chen Hua, 41, from Fujian Province, and her fellow dancers gather at an empty space outside a community center in Donggezhuang village, Beijing's suburban Shunyi district.

Dressed in a blue and black one-piece and black sneakers, Chen is the lead dancer of a group of women who are all migrant workers at a small curtain-making factory. Guangchangwu (square dancing) is more or less their only entertainment. They wave their hands, shake their hips, swirl, turn and jump under the pale fluorescent streetlights.

There are tens of millions of women like Chen. They all love dancing in squares, plazas, parks or any other public places. They are referred to as square dancing dama - a word used to describe middle-aged and elderly women. While for these women, and sometimes men too, it's just a bit of fun, for others it represents a huge business opportunity. Even Internet startups have gotten into the square dancing game, making apps to cater to the middle-aged twirlers.

Tango and cash

There are an estimated 100 million square dancers in China, according to a report on the hobby issued in 2015, and they don't think twice about opening their purses to get gear. These middle-aged women represent major purchasing power, as has been seen in the luxury fashion sector.

One of the groups, the Red Maple dancing group was founded in 2003 in a northern Beijing community. The 31-member team performed about 30 times in 2016 at competitions held by banks or nursing homes and at shopping mall grand openings. They spent thousands of yuan on each performance, mainly on outfits.

"The most important thing about these square dancing dama is that they control the purse strings. They are the decision makers on everything from healthcare and financing, to travel and other purchases," wrote Fang Hui, founder of square dance app Darfoo and author of the 2015 report. "So square dancing is only a starting point to expand our business to other areas."

The square dancing market currently amounts to about 2 billion yuan per year, Fang told the National Business Daily in November 2015.

Banks also see the potential profits and many now sponsor square dancing competitions to get deposits and sell financing products.

Chen's troupe often use an app called Tangdou Square Dance. At the end of 2015, the app launched new features including a community and tools for making short videos. And that changed Chen's life.

"I watch videos of dancers on Tangdou every day. They are so professional," said Chen. She has bought over a dozen dancing outfits in under a year. She said her husband calls her "addicted."

She has uploaded over 40 video clips onto the app so far. "Sometimes I upload three or four videos a day; sometimes I take a video with a selfie stick at night at home," said Chen, who has a 20-year-old son.

She reads all the comments on her videos and said that this approval has helped her gain self-confidence. She dreams of becoming a square dancing "celebrity" someday.

Tangdou is one of many apps for square dancers. These websites and apps offer free tutorial videos and communities for dancers to connect with each other.

Tangdou  has over 2.5 million daily users and close to 40 million monthly users, according to a November China Daily report.

It started out as just another video-sharing site, but began to focus on square dancing around 2012 and launched a virtual dance studio. They also teach dancers how to make their own videos.

The dancing dama dollar has drawn in venture capitalists too. In 2015, Tangdou got a round of $5 million financing. In November 2016 it announced a new round of $5 million financing, which followed a $15 million round of financing in September.

"Almost all of the top 100 or so square dance teachers are on Tangdou," Zhang Yuan, founder and CEO of Tangdou told Blog Weekly.

But these apps have yet to work out how to make money from their users. As with many other kinds of apps, their main focus is gaining traffic.

In the beginning Fang, founder of Darfoo, came up with a tablet especially for square dancers with a simple operating system and extra large screen but the project was a failure. So he changed direction and focused on creating online dance communities by hosting offline activities and competitions. He could then sell advertisements to banks, financial companies, and travel agencies.

Wudong Shidai was founded in May 2015 and its main platform is a WeChat public account with 120,000 followers, according to Entrepreneur magazine. The company plans to launch an app in February and to shoot a sit-com about square dancing grannies. Founder Liu Yinglong told Entrepreneur they are also not too worried about turning a profit at the moment but are focusing on attracting users through good dance teachers.

Renegade rumba

Gao Jingxuan, a dance teacher, has become an online celebrity among square dancers. After joining Tangdou as a choreographer in 2011, she found herself facing students who were not young kids, but women from 40 to 70 years old. She was surprised and amazed at their enthusiasm. The women would complain if they took a break for too long and were very competitive and constantly trying to improve, she said. Other people might think square dancing is boring and repetitive, but it's a source of joy for these women, said Gao.

Although she has never met most of her students or fans, she receives grateful text messages all the time and is often recognized on the street, in supermarkets or at highway service stations.

But despite the friendly community, square dancing does not have a good reputation. Over the years disputes over noise between residents and dancers have often grabbed headlines. In 2013, a Beijing man was arrested for firing a gun into the air and setting three mastiffs onto dancers. The same year, angry residents of Wuhan, Hubei Province had had enough of loud music and threw feces at dancers.

One of the reasons square dances do not enjoy a good reputation is because their - often blaring - music is usually considered tacky. But that seems to be the way they like it. The first few videos Gao made were not well received. While Gao personally prefers to dance to ballads, her fans want something with a strong beat. "You have to pick the most popular tunes," Gao told Blog Weekly.  

In March 2015 the central government issued "standards and regulations" for square dancing so the dance representing the "collective aspect of Chinese culture" isn't ruined by disputes over noise and venues.

Huang Yongjun, an associate professor at Hubei Normal University, believes that square dancing has its roots around the founding of the People's Republic. "People upholding the spirit of collectivism often danced and sang in squares," he told Blog Weekly magazine. "We can see the enthusiastic people in the pictures and video clips from that time."

He also sees the recent surge in enthusiasm for square dancing as a result of migration, urban changes and social convergence over the years. Dancing is these women's way of expressing themselves and getting engaged in society, said Huang. "It makes them feel stable, safe and noticed, and therefore realize that there is so much passion, dreams and inspirations still to enjoy at this late age," he was quoted as saying.

That seems to be the case for Chen. She and her fellow dancers like to have people guess how old they are, in the hope of being complimented on how much younger they look. She's upset that they are often called "dama" by the media and other people. "We don't like that name. Its as if you must be very old if you dance in squares," Chen told Blog Weekly. "What does it mean to be old? For me, I just want to do whatever I like and whatever I want, at this moment."

Chen hasn't always been able to do whatever she wanted. She started working at a garment factory at the age of 17, after graduating from a vocational school. She had to take care of her parents and younger sister. "I've done everything," she said. "For people like us, who are from the countryside, if you are 17, 18 and still aren't working, there's no meal for you at home."

When she finishes dancing everyday and goes back to her small apartment, that's when reality hits.

"We have to make more money so that we could live a better life when we get back. I just hope I can feed myself without having to work, that's not too much to ask," she said. "We have to go back to the countryside, maybe when we are older."

But for just for few hours she can take a break from her monotonous factory work and dream of something different through square dancing and video sharing.


Newspaper headline: Dancing goes digital

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