It's 6 a.m. Shall we dance?

Beijing's exercise culture embraces ballroom dancing in the park.

Despite early snows and an Arctic nip, mornings in the Middle Kingdom are a testament to the Chinese love of vigor.

The crack of dawn is when Beijing gets exercised about exercise - with every park and public space packed with spunky grandmothers pumping swing sets, grandsons dueling granddads in hot bouts of ping-pong, and tai chi groups practicing slow-motion aerobics.

Lose those sleepy winks! Just do it.

In the past few years though, a new fad has arisen among the early risers - ballroom dancing. Yes, it's Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, except there's no black tie or sequins. And here the ballroom is a park, and the dancers are positively proletarian. Bundle into heavy leather coats, don wool mittens, turn on the cassette player: Shall we dance?

A 31-degree F. frost does not, for example, deter the stately crowd at Ritan Park, otherwise known as the Temple of the Sun. "It is never too cold when you are dancing," says Mr. Huang, a retired technician who shows up every other morning.

From 7 to 10 a.m they come and go, learning the quick step, the rumba, the tango. Dozens of couples, most of whom have started in the past year, move to the oriental tones of "The Butterfly's Love," or a Latin tango - scarves intertwining.

"If you can walk, you can dance," says Chi Liu, a marketing researcher who says the morning activity starts her day on a positive note.

Ballroom dancing has long been known and secretly admired here, but was never widely organized or popular. Now the morning dance groups meet all over China. In Ritan, a small dedicated clique begun a few years ago has spun into four large groups, two of which now have accredited formal instructors.

Amateur sociologists at the Temple of the Sun say ballroom dancing is an activity that allows for more individual expression within a set of still understood rules, and is a group activity - all elements that make it a rough analogy to the changing Chinese society today.

Some of the dance crowd are younger Chinese who dance for an hour, then switch to aerobics, "fan dancing," or use various simple rowing or bicycling machines that have long been part of a rigorous morning culture of exercise here.

Bourgeois activity

But most are retirees old enough to remember when any "entertainment" or bourgeois activity like dancing was strictly forbidden. BBC commentator John Simpson recalls meeting parents during the regime of Chairman Mao Zedong (1949-1976) who waited until their children were asleep at night to pick up the floorboards of their house, where a tuxedo and a gown were hidden, to silently dance. Had the children woken up and reported this, they could have been severely punished, he remembers.

"Since the open policy started under Deng Xiaoping (in the late 1970s), people started to dance again. When Mao was in charge, if people danced, they did it indoors," says an instructor at Ritan whose red tie and white collar show smartly under an expensive cashmere pullover. "For the first time today, people in Beijing are really feeling they have a good life. For the first time, they have enough to eat and drink. Now they can have fun."

Many use the park experience as a stepping stone to formal ballroom dancing - something enjoying a black-tie comeback in China. In a group led by instructor Cho, the group practices one of six different steps every four days.

Cheek to cheek

Men and women dancing in the ballroom style used to remain about a fist-width apart, says Mrs. Wu. Body contact among the sexes in the past was not quite acceptable. "But we aren't so formal today, we just want to relax and enjoy ourselves." Indeed, there is an easy acceptance, a gusto and spontaneity among the dancers - who spin and bow and wander all over the park - that might be hard to find in North American or European urban areas.

At this park, many participants come alone and switch partners after every song. Women often dance with women - due to what seems a universal problem of a dearth of male participants.

Dancers sometimes swap phone numbers and addresses. They say they are thrilled to be making new friends outside their usual circles, and they talk of "networking" and swapping information about everything from jobs to computer technical support. But partly due to a sense of Chinese decorum, the denizens of Ritan usually do not see each other outside the park. Dance partner friends tend to be a discreet circle that rarely extends to the family, or fellow employees.

Actually, the ballroom dance craze is just part of an overall emphasis on health and exercise that is found in urban areas across Asia. For the first time, private gyms and health clubs have started in cities like Beijing and Shanghai, where the younger, moneyed set in the new China go after work. Singles especially will pay relatively exorbitant sums, as much as 1,000 yuan ($120) a month, for marble floored clubs that offer yoga, pools, and the latest exercise equipment technology.

The morning culture of diversity in exercise is being encouraged by the Chinese government. Last week, the first-ever official certificates were issued to 48 public instructors in Beijing. The new instructors range from 17 to over 60 years of age. They in turn go out into the parks to lead others in calisthenics, dance, Tai Chi, karate, taijiquan, and so on.

"We never had instructors before, people just volunteered," says Cathy Liu, an expert on Beijing parks and monuments. "It just shows the government is getting more serious about popularizing sports and exercise."

The now outlawed Falun Gong spiritual movement started as a morning-exercise discipline. But no one anticipates the ballroom dancers pose much of what is called an anti-social element here.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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