China's Dancing Grannies
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because they are more than just 50 shades of gray.
By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu
Song Chunyi is light and nimble on her feet. A natural dancer, she belongs on the stage at Lincoln Center. Lucky for Beijing locals, though, Song moves and grooves in her neighborhood’s concrete park. At 65, well, her hips don’t lie. “I’m not past my prime,” Song says, right before executing several graceful pirouettes.
Neither are her fellow dancers, 15 twinkle-toed grannies who flaunt neon leggings and retro windbreakers while strutting their, um, stuff. And no, they’re not cutting coupons for this sweat-wicking fitness apparel. They’re shelling out big bucks — millions, in fact — according to Taobao, an online marketplace known as China’s Amazon.
More than 30 percent of dance-related products are purchased by consumers age 50 and older.
The groovin’ granny boom is fast becoming a lucrative industry in China. From Beijing to Shanghai, gangs of graceful Grandma Songs are boogying in parks and plazas every morning, taking pointers from dance teachers and cues from upbeat music. It’s all part of a growing senior tsunami, says Jacques Penhirin, the managing director of Greater China at Oliver Wyman. He says that by 2050, China will be home to the world’s biggest “silver market,” with a quarter of the world’s elderly population older than 60. At more than 300 million, these seniors will outnumber the combined populations of the U.K., France, Germany and Japan. Granted, betting on the elderly may not sound like a long-term investment; many have branded the trend as a ticking time bomb and warned of a future labor shortage. But there’s a silver lining — seniors in China are spending an average of 6.9 hours a day purchasing goods and services on the Internet, according to the Boston Consulting Group. That’s a lot of cha-ching. It’s why e-commerce sites like Alibaba launched a section dedicated to the elderly.
It’s an odd paradox. The fitness market normally banks on youth and vitality, but elderly Chinese women who still have pep in their step are fueling the sector’s online growth. For female seniors like Song, a pair of comfortable dancing slippers costs 62 yuan, a workout shirt and pants 90 yuan. A colorful sweatband and a few more accessories later, these women wear 400 yuan (about $60) worth of fitness apparel and accessories for a typical workout session, according to a joint report from Taobao and China Business Network, a research firm based in Shanghai.
But not everyone is cheering on the grannies. Last year, enough noise complaints were submitted that the Chinese government announced a plan to standardize and regulate outdoor dancing — a proposal that was quickly shelved in the face of nationwide granny rage. “You don’t want to mess with these dama,” says Tian Hui, a dance instructor who guides 20-person groups in Beijing. (Dama [大妈] means “big mamas” in Chinese and is used to refer to the dancing grannies.)
After an exhausting dance workout, dama Song headed home. But before she left, Song assured her gal pals that she’d be back tomorrow with new workout bling. Move over, Soul Cycling whippersnappers.