Beijing's Other Games: Dancing In The Park

Beijing is the center of world sports this week and next, with marquee events like swimming, gymnastics and track.

But outside the Olympic venues, you can find a different sort of action in the city's public parks.

Every morning, thousands of retirees engage in their own brand of exercise: Everything from ballroom dancing to an old Chinese game that looks like hacky sack.

At 7:30 a.m. in Red Scarf Park, it's time for Latin dance. Three hundred older Chinese are gliding across a polished stone floor in an outdoor pavilion.

The men wear pressed pants, and women twirl in pleated skirts. They do the tango, the Viennese waltz — even the jitterbug.

"I like dancing, I like music," says 52-year-old Ko Fengling, a regular. "I like it from the bottom of my heart. This way of working out is quite good. You can entertain yourself while you exercise."

Ko is retired from a clothing dye factory. Her dance partner is a former co-worker, Meng Xinghong, who seems shy.

When asked what draws him here, he takes the question the wrong way: He quickly points out that his relationship with his partner does not go beyond the dance floor.

"Working out has [a] lot of benefits," Meng says. "There's nothing else. I just like dancing."

Social Freedom With Dance

Fan Delong, who used to work in the Daqing Oil Fields in northeast China, enjoys the social freedom of dancing in the park. After retiring several years ago, he has come here every day in warm weather.

"There's no fixed partner," Fan says. "You can just look around whenever you come. When I invite people, if the person thinks I dance well, she'll accept my invitation. If she doesn't, I don't care. I can ask someone else."

And Fan — a lanky man who wears a baseball cap — says there are advantages to not dancing with your spouse.

"If you dance with your own people, there are more problems," Fan says. "If you make a wrong move and your wife says, 'You've stepped on my foot,' you have no other choice [but] to put up with it."

Beijingers have been ballroom dancing in parks for decades, but there was a time when they didn't. During the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, the government banned things it saw as foreign and bourgeois.

Lin Sunrong, who used to work as an interpreter for Chinese diplomats, describes that chaotic period in a diplomatic light.

"You could dance during the Cultural Revolution, but we didn't dance like the way we do today," Lin says. "It was revolutionary dance."

Early Morning Pingpong

People also exercise in other ways at the park. Just outside the front gate, another group of retirees stands in a circle, kicking shuttlecocks in the air.

It's an old Chinese sport and looks like a cross between badminton and hacky sack.

One player says they can keep the shuttlecock in the air up to 20 minutes.

About a mile away is Chaoyang Park, where the government has built a 12,000 seat stadium for Olympic beach volleyball. With its bikini-clad female players and tons of sand, beach volleyball is foreign to most Chinese.

But a short walk from the stadium is a more familiar game — pingpong. Players begin mopping the dew from the tables around sunrise, and by 6 a.m., all 18 are full.

Players come for the competition and for the health benefits. Two years ago, Zhang Suying had high cholesterol, so at 56, she took up pingpong and the effects have been dramatic.

"Before, I was fat," Zhang says. "I was 154 pounds. Now, I'm 121 pounds."

Zhang is a fierce player. She whacks the ball so hard that her opponent has to play six feet away from the back end of the table. She says learning was pretty easy.

"When you start, the old players all teach you," Zhang says. "They teach you how to move strategically, how to hold the paddle, how to move your feet. They're very warm-hearted."

Back at the dancing pavilion, it is approaching 9:30 a.m. and things are beginning to wrap up. After nearly two hours, the dancers are hot and tired. Women sit on newspapers, drinking tea from thermoses and cooling themselves with hand fans. Some of the men have sweated through their shirts. Then the session concludes as it does each morning: with "Auld Lang Syne."

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