Last Saturday morning, in front of a picturesque lake in west Beijing's Lianhuachi Park, I watched 80 dancers in red skirts, sailor hats, aviator shades, and street gang-esque fingerless gloves dance to a thumping EDM beat mixed with traditional Chinese music.
The members of the Beijing Lianhuachi Happy Sailor Club, complete with their enormous sound system, meet every morning to bring a whirlwind of flapping red neckties and music to the otherwise serene park. "Our dances are adapted from traditional sailor dances. This one is called a six step pass," said dance leader Wu Xiao Juan as the group members twirled behind her. "It consumes more energy than regular dances. It's the kind of dance we're addicted to!"
The sailor dances are variations of square dancing: an addiction for millions of people across China who regularly dance in groups, usually in parks or in front of residential buildings they live in. Members mainly join groups via word of mouth or WeChat, China's hugely popular messaging app. But this year a potential digital revolution in the country-wide square dance community has been sparked by the success of Tangdou Square Dance: an app and website that has been described as the Tinder of square dancing.
Gu Bao Yuan, another Happy Sailor Club leader who I contacted through the app, said that since the summer he has recruited around 20 new dancers to his 200-strong sailor dance community via Tangdou, which uses location services to match dancers with nearby groups. Not everyone can become a Happy Sailor, though. "Many people don't specifically do sailor dances—we don't approve their applications," said Gu from behind his aviators.
Last month Tangdou, which launched in 2012 as a straightforward video sharing website before focusing on square dancing, announced that it had received $15 million in its second round of funding. As well as the matching service it provides communication platforms for dancers to announce events and chat, but is mainly driven by videos. The app and site are swamped with dance videos, including many tutorials, with both Tangdou-created clips and those made by groups around China sometimes clocking up millions of views.
Before I visited the Happy Sailors I headed to Tangdou's office in north Beijing. There, the sound of the young, hoodie-wearing staffers' keyboard tapping merged with muffled pop songs spilling from the company's dance studio, located next door to the computer hubs. Every so often a few staffers leaped up from their computers and pop there for a quick dance, giggling and twisting in front of the studio mirrors.
Gao Jing Xuan was warming down after filming her latest video. She is Tangdou's full time dance teacher (they also use around six freelance teachers) and makes around three tutorial videos per week, often filmed on an iPhone using the app's recording function that can add various trippy visual effects to the dances.
"The highest amount of views I've got on one is over one million," she said, sending me a link to a video showing her busting moves to techno-pop. It's impressive, although the lyrical content contrasts somewhat with the cutesy visuals. Sample lines: "I'm so cute and so happy about myself/Whenever I feel happy I want to have sex/I feel like I'm so cute and I want to kiss you/Whenever I feel sad I want to have sex".
The techno-underpinned raciness doesn't seem to be putting off users. Zhang Yuan, Tangdou's CEO, said that last September the app and site had 2.5 million daily users and that their target is to get up to three million by June 2017. Most users are middle-aged or elderly women, many of whom are retired and have dancing as their main hobby. Zhang said that their deep obsessions with dancing combined with the country's explosion in smartphone usage have driven Tangdou's success.
"Square dancing is no longer just a way to keep fit," he said. "It's now a lifestyle where you can find a sense of belonging. There is a saying among square dancers: 'If you dance fast enough, the loneliness will not catch up'."
This expanded sense of community is important for many square dancers – often known as tiaowu dama, which means 'dancing grannies'—not least because they often cause controversy. For some reason not everyone in China is a fan of loud music blared for hours on the street or in parks, with the government recently clamping down on dancing in public.
When they are not dodging bullets or excrement aimed at them by angry local residents, the so-called dancing grannies are often busy managing their families' finances. Advertisers have identified them as an economically powerful bunch, with Tangdou selling advertising to firms keen to tap into these focused, often wealthy community members. The company estimates that there are around 190 million tiaowu dama in China: a huge potential market.
Tangdou shifted focus from its website to its app last year, due to more and more Chinese now using smartphones as their main way of accessing the internet. According to statistics database website Statista there are around 563 million smartphone owners in China, but my meeting with the Happy Sailors suggested that the firm still faces challenges by relying on smartphone use.
"Most of our dancers are middle-aged or elderly and don't have the best knowledge of smartphones," said group leader Wu. "Many of them have to ask their children to teach them to use it, then only about ten to 20 percent of them do use it." Fellow leader Gu added: "But we do think it'll develop in a positive way. The dancers love to try and learn, even though they may be a bit slow. The app is easy to use."
Already, though, Tangdou has changed the way that dancers such as the Happy Sailors operate, with public video posting creating rivalry between groups that filters down from group leaders using the app. "We used to let new members dance at the front," said Gu. "Now when we film we put great dancers at the front to set an example, and we always make sure we wear our uniforms to look good on camera. The competition is intense, but it's a good thing. The groups learn from each other and it means the dances get better."
The rising competition level seemed to be inspiring impressive dance standards. I watched the Happy Sailors as they performed the last dance of the morning: a brilliantly choreographed flurry of arm swoops and nimble, line dance-esque footwork. It'll make for a good video.
"Why don't you have a go next time?" asked one of the dancers, waggling her smartphone at me. Maybe I will. But I'd best start off at the back, I replied.