IT'S 6AM ON a humid summer morning in Shanghai. Much of the city is still asleep, but Zhongshan Park in the Changning district is already a hive of activity. The air is filled with the sound of laughter and exercise instructions. Towards the park centre, the mix gets livelier with drum beats, singing and samba music.
'This is our place for staying fit,' says Wang Mengxiang, 53, as she puts on a pair of high-heeled dance shoes. 'Most of the time we'll have about 20 people, and you can stay as long as you want. Some people are here for more than four hours every morning.'
Wang and her dance partner Zhang Shize, 67, have been practising Latin and ballroom steps together for the past two years. 'After retiring, I felt I was getting older day by day,' Zhang says. 'Maybe that's why I've been feeling out of touch with the new Shanghai. It's not right to sit at home and play mahjong all day.'
No one's sure when and how the mainland's older generations began dancing in the streets. But the practice took off in the mid-90s and dancers such as Zhang and Wang are now a familiar sight in cities from Guangzhou to Tianjin. Traditional folk dances such as Dayangge or 'waist-drum dance' are as popular as Latin dance. Dancing and singing clubs have become so widespread that groups regularly host district and inter-city competitions.
Like their peers, Wang and Zhang joined the dance gatherings because they offered a cheap way to work out and socialise. Most are organised by enthusiasts, who hire the services of an instructor for the daily sessions. Participation is casual and there's no fee aside from a monthly contribution, usually five yuan, towards hiring a teacher.
'We're getting old, and exercise is becoming increasingly important for us,' says Zhang. 'Retired people like us can't afford expensive gym membership, but we want to live happily and healthily.'
With their numbers increasing, these dancers have begun to organise themselves. There's more communication, and frequent contests and city events. The competitions are good-natured, Wang says, since the main objective is to have fun and stay fit.
Municipal governments help fund inter-district dance contests, and the best are chosen to take part in an annual nationwide event organised by the central government, which assigns a host city each year and provides sponsorship.
Rewards are modest. Depending on the sponsor, winning teams can earn prizes such as a stereo system for public sessions, or exercise equipment. Participants have to cover their own travelling and other expenses. Still, there's a chance to be in the limelight: a group of elderly dancers from Hebei won the award for best performance at this year's Spring Festival television special.
Judges focus on style and originality. Scoring can be biased, but there are no hard feelings since everyone is there to have fun, Wang says. '[The contests] are a good opportunity for us to meet new people, and maybe pick up some tips from others,' she says. 'It's just a great feeling to know that you're not alone, and to know, at this age, you can still do well in some activities.'
Xu Ailing, 54, like many of her fellow enthusiasts, grew up during the Cultural Revolution and had little formal education. Xu was in her late 40s when she was laid off from a state enterprise. 'Machines and younger people took our jobs,' she says. 'I was feeling desperate for a while, but it's too early for life to be over. Now I cycle 40 minutes every morning to come to this park to dance, laugh and chat with people who share my experiences. That makes me feel much better.'
China has 143 million citizens aged 65 or over. According to Xinhua, that number is expected to grow to 248 million by 2020.
'The market for the elderly has great potential,' says entrepreneur Wu Han-zhang. 'The problem is that not many people are researching this market or providing services that meet old people's needs.'Seeing an opportunity, the 31-year-old set up a website (www.oldkids.com.cn ) six years ago to provide internet services for senior citizens in Shanghai. 'We teach them to make use of internet technology, and help them organise online activities and clubs, such as these public dancing salons,' he says.
Since its launch in 2000, oldkids.com has attracted more than 50,000 subscribers. 'Chatting online has become a new way for our members to participate in community events, travel together, and organise city-wide dancing and singing competitions.'
Office manager Song Shining, 57, is organiser of the Great Grassland Star Vocal Club. Like the dance groups, he says, his club is an avenue for a generation which feels left out of popular culture to find relevance and camaraderie.
'Most of us grew up during the Cultural Revolution and we're getting to a point where society has taken off without us,' Song says. 'As you can hear, our songs are all from the 1960s. We'll never be able to accept the new culture, so we decided to get together to reunite with our past. Plus it's fun and entertaining.'
Many clubs often take their names from 60s icons or slogans, such as Grow Under the Red Flag or Big Yellow River.
Some singing clubs gather from across the country for annual contests, and members fork out significant sums of their own money for hotels, airfares and other expenses. Such groups have drawn the attention of local officials. Many cities have funds to organise senior citizens' programmes, for activities such as table tennis, which was hugely popular in the 60s, singing and dancing.
According to historian Xue Liyong, dancing and singing have been a big part of mainland culture since the 50s.
'Almost everyone in the 50s learned how to dance and sing because the entertainment industry didn't exist at the time,' Xue says. 'The trend [for dancing and singing clubs] doesn't surprise me since these people are facing a similar situation again - not getting enough attention and entertainment from society.
'These groups feel society has ignored all the contributions they made in the past. But just because no one cares for them any more, they're not simply going to recede quietly into the dark. Past hardship has made them amazingly strong. They fought for their happiness back then, and they will keep on fighting today.'