By James Jeffrey
With music blaring from speakers connected to a laptop and strobe lights flashing, women lined up facing the same direction in four evenly spaced rows. Dancing in unison under the night sky, they stepped right, spun around, and put a hand out to the side.
Texas-style line dancing? Not by a long shot, seeing as how the performance took place in Xiejiaqiao, a village deep in China’s countryside, and the rhythms were strictly country eastern.
Despite its unparalleled pace of urbanization, approximately 53 percent of China’s 1.3 billion people still live in the countryside. While Beijing’s 21 million residents have many nighttime entertainment options, for the 801 inhabitants of Xiejiaqiao in Zhejiang Province such options are limited. Yet for the last five years, groups of local women have gathered nightly for dancing sessions, often drawing enthusiastic onlookers. Other locals, particularly young men, find alternatives for their evening amusement.
“The Chinese tend to do everything in a group,” said 38-year-old Jiang Qiongyan. “They’re not willing to be lonely as the sense of community is so important—even in dancing.”
For the first half of the year, people are too busy raising tea to dance. In May, the dancing begins, explained Qian Baorong, a 63-year-old trombone player with the village band that sometimes accompanies the dancing. Come August, when the harvesting of nuts starts, the dancing ends. A local village official in charge of women’s affairs initiated the dance sessions five years ago, Qian said.
“I love dancing,” said 29-year-old Zhang Xiu, who by day works in a local factory making Duralast wrenches, and brings her toddler daughter to the dances. “I’ll happily do this every night.”
All that prevents the dances is the rain, as the group gathers at two open air locations: in front of the village council’s building and a renovated square by one of the village’s few remaining traditional houses.
“I don’t mind the noise,” said 74-year-old Zhu Hengsheng, who lives in the old house beside the second dance venue. “I enjoy seeing the dancing, with people congregated and enjoying themselves.”
Zhu said the area outside her house used to be abandoned ground until the government renovated it. Her 150-year-old house was deemed an example of the village’s cultural heritage in need of protection. Up on the second floor are rooms where females were once sequestered, according to Chinese custom, until they married.
Now women gather freely outdoors, but missing are those who might make for a husband—the village’s young men.
“No man ever goes to it,” 26-year-old Zhou Xudong said of the dancing. “It’s just for the women.” He added he’d rather watch the television or play mahjong, a traditional Chinese board game.
Other men in the village said they might spend evenings playing poker, going fishing in the local river or hunting wild pigs in the surrounding hills.
“Sometimes I’ll go to a big city for the weekend,” said 29-year-old Yu Hua, adding he catches a bus with his friends to Hangzhou city and then takes a train to Shanghai.
Despite the lack of young men involved, after the Monday rain ceased on June 13, an eager crowd of both sexes—the male contingent consisted of young boys or men over 30—watched the dancing, which featured a mixture of music from India, Tibet, the Middle East, as well as Chinese pop music. Moths fluttered in the streetlights’ glow, as dancers, their movements casting long shadows, stepped in time to songs like “The Road to the Sky” and “Why Are Flowers so Red?”
While the scene lacked the sophistication of a modern Shanghai nightclub, it achieved something often missing from within a city’s bright lights: a sense of community.
“I’m getting older so I can’t dance, but I like to come and watch the young,” said 71-year-old Xie Linge leaning on a streetlight. “I liked opera when I was young—would you like to hear me sing now?”