At least twice a week, Wu Ying goes to a local gym in western Beijing to work out. She joins a group of girlfriends and the occasional guy, and for a couple of hours they train with a dance instructor in a glass-walled room surrounded by treadmills and step machines.
The whole scene — some 20-odd people working up a sweat to the insistent beat of hip-hop, under dim fluorescent lights — would be unremarkable if not for the fact that Wu is 70 years old.
Wu, aka China’s pre-eminent Hip-Hop Granny, is a nimble Beijing native with an expressive face and an elastic body. She has been performing hip-hop routines since 2003, when she saw the first National Hip-Hop Dancing Competition on Chinese television. "The competitors were all young people, wearing headscarves, headdresses, hats and various clothes," recounted Wu, a retired accountant who was 66 at the time. "I thought that was very fresh."
Inspired by "the look they had in their eyes, the way they moved their fingers, heads and bodies," Wu thought hip-hop dancing would be perfect for herself and China’s aged and infirm.
"The elderly don’t like to move too much," she added. (She’s right. Even though legions of elderly Chinese can be seen exercising in city parks across the country at dawn and dusk, they tend to favor slower-tempo activities like tai chi or ballroom dances such as waltzing.)
Wu set out to learn hip-hop dancing at a local gym and to study whatever she could about the activity. She also began looking to put together a five-member troupe to promote hip-hop dancing by touring the country and by performing on Chinese TV.
‘Hip-hop is merely for young people’ But not many other Chinese pensioners thought the same as Wu, who scoured Beijing high and low, targeting parks, community centers and schools for continuing education.
"[People] said, ‘Hip-hop? What is hip-hop? Is that a sport for you? Hip-hop is merely for young people. How old are you? You are 66 and you want to dance hip-hop? Don't be ridiculous!' " laughed Wu as she described people’s initial reaction to her idea. Even her own daughter was embarrassed by the thought of a hip-hop mom and scoffed at the notion, provoking a rift between them that lasted days.
Eventually, Wu found four other women willing to try out, and they formed a team in February 2004. Six months and many rehearsals later, the Hip-Hop Granny Dance Team made its debut at the Beijing qualifier for the National Hip-Hop Dancing Competition.
The Grannies — whose average age was 60 at the time — faced off people several decades younger. "They were professionals," Wu said. "We seniors didn’t know much, so we were very nervous." But their daily rehearsal routines paid off; the Grannies walked off with third prize.
They haven’t looked back since, garnering further prizes and accolades every year. Moreover, Wu’s 48-year-old daughter, Guo Zhe, now appreciates her mother’s dancing and even occasionally joins in.
The Hip-Hop Grannies have also drawn many more members. Over the years, they’ve attracted at least 1,000 different women.
Among them is a 74-year-old who just began learning — she’s the oldest member.
And there is the odd man who tries it out. But the group has only attracted five men so far.
Wu shrugged when asked why so few men participate. "They don’t like to move so much at that age?" she speculated.
Liu Jian Zhu, a 59-year-old former pharmacist with the Chinese air force, said dancing hip-hop has been "a breakthrough" for her.
"Since I was in the military, my life had been required to be serious and intense," Liu explained. "It has really changed my life and personality."
Wen Di, 55, used to work as a railroad construction technician, but after retiring just last year, she wanted to find something to fill what she called the emptiness in her life.
"I saw Wu's dancing on TV and thought that it was very inspiring," she said, eagerly demonstrating some impressive hip-hop moves for us.
A rejuvenating presence Wu — who works out for two and a half hours twice a week (more when it’s competition season) — is a rejuvenating presence.
Although she comes from a generation that lived through some of modern China’s most tumultuous decades, including the stifling Cultural Revolution era (when Western cultural thought and influences were banned), her optimism is refreshing.
"We represent a new image, a new fashion for Chinese grandmothers," said Wu. "We develop with time and connect with the world. We don’t just learn our own Chinese culture. We learn cultures from other countries to enrich ourselves and our lives, to lead a more colorful and high-quality life."
Wu said she plans to dance for as long as she physically can, adding that "I think that dancing hip-hop has made me younger, happier [and] improved my memory."
Perhaps the only drawback is that with the stress of competition her shoulder-length hair has finally succumbed to age. "It turned gray when we began entering competitions," she said, rolling her eyes in mock frustration. "I only just started coloring it in the past couple of years!"