MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Over the coming weeks, many millions of people around the world will tune in to see what happens inside Beijing's Olympic facilities, but few will see what goes on outside where 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, as NPR's Frank Langfitt reports.
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FRANK LANGFITT: It's 7:30 in the morning at Red Scarf Park, and that means 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, the women twirl in pleated skirts. They do the tango, the Viennese waltz, even the jitterbug.
Ko Fengling is 52 years old and a regular.
Ms. KO FENGLING (Retiree): (Through translator) I like dancing, I like music. I love it from the bottom of my heart. This way of working out is really good. You can entertain yourself while you exercise.
LANGFITT: Ko is retired from a clothing dye factory. Her dance partner is a former co-worker. His name is Meng Xinghong, and he seems shy. When I 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.
Mr. MENG XINGHONG (Retiree): (Through translator) Working out has a lot of benefits. There's nothing else. I just like dancing.
LANGFITT: Fan Delong used to work in the Daqing oil fields in northeast China. After retiring several years ago, he has come here every day in warm weather. He enjoys the social freedom.
Mr. FAN DELONG (Retiree): (Through translator) There's no fixed partner. 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.
LANGFITT: And Fan, a lanky man who wears a baseball cap, says there are advantages to not dancing with your spouse.
Mr. DELONG: (Through translator) If you dance with your own people, there are more problems. 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.
LANGFITT: 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 used to work as an interpreter for Chinese diplomats. He describes that chaotic period in a diplomatic light.
Mr. LIN SUNRONG (Retiree): (Through translator) You could dance during the Cultural Revolution, but we didn't dance like the way we do today. It was revolutionary dance.
LANGFITT: People exercise in other ways at the park. Just outside the front gate, another group of retirees stands in a circle. They're kicking a shuttlecock 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 up in the air up to 20 minutes.
About a mile away is Chaoyang Park. The government has built a 12,000-seat stadium here 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. Players begin mopping the dew from the ping pong tables around sunrise. By 6 a.m., all 18 are full.
Players come for the competition and the health benefits. Two years ago, Zhang Suying had high cholesterol, so at 56, she took up ping pong. The effects have been dramatic.
Ms. ZHANG SUYING (Retiree): (Through translator): Before, I was fat. I was 154 pounds. Now, I'm 121 pounds.
LANGFITT: Zhang is a fierce player. She whacks the ball so hard her opponent has to play six feet off the back of the table. Zhang says learning was pretty easy.
Ms. SUYING: (Through translator) When you start, the old players all teach you. They teach you how to move strategically, how to hold the paddle and how to move your feet. They're very warm-hearted.
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LANGFITT: Back at the dancing pavilion, it's approaching 9:30 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."
(Soundbite of song "Auld Lang Syne")
LANGFITT: Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Beijing.
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