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Every evening in Anshan Town, a rural village in China’s Shandong province, around 25 middle-aged women gather in the small public square to dance to the Black Eyed Peas’ “My Humps,” among other songs. For 90 minutes, the women move in unison to Chinese and Western remixes of hip-hop, pop, and rock-and-roll, while their children and grandchildren play at the edge of the plaza. By dancing in the public square, the troupe claims one of the few visible communal spaces in town—both physically and through blasting their music.
I first saw the town’s square-dancing troupe perform when I was in Anshan Town doing research on social media use in rural China as part of a global comparative project. In 2013 and 2014, I discovered that people in the town use social media to support existing social relationships—but also to connect with strangers in new ways, which is how users remake their lives in the social landscape.
Chinese square dancing—that is, dancing in a public square, not western U.S. square dancing—has become a well-established national craze in urban areas since it started in the mid-1990s. It finally hit Anshan Town in early 2013.
But for the women in the town who started the dance group, the movement has a larger meaning. They are pioneers. Although most of them emphasize the social and health benefits of square dancing, I found that this daily routine is also a spectacle of local power. Many of these women are members of the town’s elite families. For example, the troupe’s leader serves as secretary of the village’s branch of the Chinese Communist Party Women’s Federation. Taking over the public square reinforces their place in the town’s hierarchy—and expands it.
The troupe’s political goals point to the role of women in China today. Dancing in public challenges a persistent expectation—even more prevalent in rural areas—that females ought to focus their attention on household matters. Despite decades of Communist Party rhetoric and reforms aimed at creating gender parity in the labor force, these attitudes persist and influence where women can go and with whom they can socialize.
In the case of Anshan Town, before this dance troupe formed, participants met at each other’s homes to play cards. While gathering is almost always socially empowering, meeting in public and putting on expressive dance moves takes this group’s visibility to new heights.
In addition, social media encourages these women’s freedom from the household and traditional gender roles by providing a digital space that complements their use of public space. Using Chinese social media platforms for the “backstage work,” the dancers choose songs, share dance moves, and spread rehearsal schedules to group members. This closed online space also provides a comfortable venue for discussing the frustrations of domestic life—concerns that otherwise might have gone unspoken.
Highly adapted to their complex political and social environments, these women’s use of social media provides an avenue for increasing both their social connections and their social standing. And it shows how humans can use new technologies to reconfigure their lives—which is a remarkable thing to say about both square dancing and “My Humps.”