The se­niors’ dance mar­ket is a po­ten­tial gold mine for tech en­trepreneurs— but pen­sion­ers won’t eas­ily part with their pen­nies

The World of Chinese - - News - BY SUN JI­AHUI (孙佳慧)



They’re ei­ther health-con­scious se­niors or public nui­sances, de­pend­ing who you ask. But for years, to many internet en­trepreneurs, China’s “squaredanc­ing dama,” mid­dle-aged ladies fond of ex­er­cis­ing to ear-pierc­ing mu­sic, have rep­re­sented mil­lions of po­ten­tial con­sumers—if only they can fig­ure out how to tap the mar­ket.

Found for­ma­tion danc­ing in the evening in any rea­son­ably open space—public squares, parks, plazas, even bas­ket­ball courts and park­ing lots—all across China, the dama are al­ready known for their eco­nomic clout. A 2015 study by Fang Hui, founder of a

square-danc­ing startup, stated that there are 80 to 100 mil­lion square dancers and over 2 mil­lion squaredance teach­ers in China. Fac­ing an early re­tire­ment age, grown-up sin­gle chil­dren, and ris­ing dis­pos­able in­comes, th­ese women de­vel­oped a rep­u­ta­tion for “spec­u­lat­ing gold” in 2013, once buy­ing over 300 tons in just 10 days. The close-knit con­gre­ga­tions of empty-nesters are also hot­beds for P2P lend­ing schemes, stock-trad­ing, and startup in­vest­ment us­ing funds pooled to­gether by danc­ing troupe—as well as per­sonal fi­nance and health prod­uct scams.

Th­ese stats have at­tracted en­trepreneurs to make money from the dama mar­ket in a more sys­tem­atic way. Chi­nese me­dia dubbed 2015 as “The First Year of Square Dance En­trepreneur­ship.” Since 2015, over 60 apps have been launched tar­get­ing those reg­u­lar square dancers, who usu­ally con­trol the purse strings in their fam­i­lies, ac­cord­ing to Beijing Daily.

Cai Rongci, a 58-year-old lead­ing dancer of a Wuhan square-dance group, is a loyal user of th­ese apps. Re­spon­si­ble for teach­ing moves to over 20 dancers in her group, Cai re­lies on the videos pro­vided by th­ese apps to learn new chore­og­ra­phy. “We have no teach­ers, but there are so many apps where you can find thou­sands of dances. I learn first, and then teach oth­ers,” says Cai.

How­ever, af­ter a short boom age in 2015, the apps left on the mar­ket are not as “many.” In 2017, Beijing Daily re­ported that most square-dance apps have al­ready shifted tar­get or shut down. “In the past two years, more than 60 square-dance apps have been launched, but now only three or four sur­vive,” claimed the news­pa­per, “The square danc­ing dama are still there, but it’s more and more dif­fi­cult to earn money from them.”

Fan Zhaoyin, who founded the app Jiu Ai Square Dance in 2015, was even less op­ti­mistic. “There are only two or three com­pa­nies left in this mar­ket,” he says. Though his own com­pany is do­ing rel­a­tively well, Fan ad­mits that the whole in­dus­try is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a reshuf­fle stage.

In 2012, when Fan Zhaoyin was still work­ing for an internet com­pany, he be­gan to think about start­ing his own busi­ness. By chance, he found that “square dance” was an ex­tremely pop­u­lar search term on search en­gine Baidu, gath­er­ing 100,000 hits in one day. Thus, he and a few friends founded an on­line square-dance themed fo­rum, and or­ga­nized dozens of QQ groups for square-dance lovers to com­mu­ni­cate. In less than two years, their reg­is­tered users reached more than 100,000. By 2015, Fan felt it was time to be­come a full-time squaredance en­tre­pre­neur.

Fan was not the only bull on the square-danc­ing mar­ket at that time. CBNDATA, in cooperation with Alibaba, re­leased a sta­tis­ti­cal re­port in 2015, stat­ing that on av­er­age,

a square dancer spends 437 RMB on danc­ing, in­clud­ing 62 RMB for danc­ing shoes, 90 RMB for out­fits, 151 RMB for cos­tumes and 50 RMB for ac­ces­sories. In Fang Hui’s re­port, the size of the danc­ing clothes and loud­speak­ers mar­ket was al­ready es­ti­mated at over two bil­lion RMB an­nu­ally; the health-sup­ple­ment in­dus­try, which also re­gards the dama as a key mar­ket, had reached more than 200 bil­lion RMB an­nu­ally.

Fang, how­ever, be­came one of the first vic­tims of the dif­fi­cul­ties of con­quer­ing this au­di­ence. Tar­get­ing dama who may need mobile de­vices to learn dances, Fang and his team founded a com­pany called Dafoo, which de­vel­oped a tablet es­pe­cially for el­ders to use to watch square-dance videos. How­ever, with a price of 699 RMB each, sales of Dafoo tablets were only around 2,000 in to­tal. The project failed just18 months af­ter it started.

Other en­trepreneurs tried dif­fer­ent ap­proaches. In Septem­ber 2016, live-stream­ing plat­form Youban was launched, aim­ing to build up a mobile-stream­ing com­mu­nity for the mid­dle-aged and el­derly. Youban pro­vided videos of square dances to at­tract el­derly users, but has seem­ingly stopped up­dat­ing since Fe­bru­ary 2017. An­other startup, 99 Square Dance, raised tens of mil­lions in fund­ing from Yingke, a ma­jor live-stream­ing plat­form, but its live broad­casts ceased in last April as well.

It seems dama’s en­gage­ment with th­ese apps and their pur­chas­ing power had been se­ri­ously over­es­ti­mated.

An in­ter­est in square dance doesn’t equate to de­mand for apps, and other rel­e­vant ser­vices are even less ap­peal­ing. “Gen­er­ally, only lead­ing dancers use th­ese apps; the oth­ers just fol­low us to dance,” says Cai. “For th­ese apps, we only care about if they are con­ve­nient or not. As for whether they can make money, we re­ally don’t care.”

Com­pared with those van­ished apps, Fan’s Jiu Ai Square Dance was lucky. Though just one of the only “two or three” sur­viv­ing play­ers in this in­dus­try, Fan says it cur­rently has more than 5 mil­lion users. Fan be­lieves the key is more than just ac­cu­mu­lat­ing users. “The most im­por­tant thing is that we have found an ef­fec­tive chan­nel of turn­ing our user traf­fic into prof­its,” says he. “Square dance is just an en­try point, you can use it to at­tract users, but should try to make money in other ar­eas.”

By “other ar­eas,” Fan mainly refers to its e-com­merce busi­ness. Jiu Ai’s in-app and Wechat on­line stores pro­vide not only square-dancere­lated com­modi­ties but ar­ti­cles of ev­ery­day use, in­clud­ing clothes, food, and house­hold items pre­ferred by their user de­mo­graphic. By now, e-com­merce has be­come the main re­source of their rev­enues, and Fan says the rise of mobile pay­ment is a

con­tribut­ing fac­tor. “Now it’s much eas­ier to teach mid­dle-aged peo­ple to use mobile apps or go shop­ping on­line. The cli­mate is bet­ter than be­fore.”

In fact, be­fore Fan fi­nally found the right way of mak­ing money, he also tried a few other di­rec­tions, such as ad­ver­tise­ments for com­mer­cial brands and or­ga­niz­ing off-line square-danc­ing com­pe­ti­tions, but none worked well enough. “Now we don’t take ad­ver­tise­ment any­more, be­cause it’s hard to as­sure the safety and qual­ity of the brand. We need to pro­tect dama from false ad­ver­tise­ments or scams. Once they are deceived, they will leave you,” says Fan. “For us, dama’s trust is the premise and base for ev­ery­thing. We should cul­ti­vate trust first, and talk about mak­ing money later.”

Paid con­tent is an­other trend in the internet in­dus­try. But Fan doesn’t think it’s the right time for square dance apps to charge for their contents. “It’s ex­actly th­ese free videos that at­tract dama, and there are so many free videos on­line. If you start charg­ing, you are driv­ing them away,” says Fan.

Per­haps Fan is right. For many dama like Cai, square-dance apps are not ir­re­place­able, and nor are they loyal to one. “We usu­ally just find free con­tent, there are so many apps [that can pro­vide free videos]. And you can also find videos on web­sites like Tu­dou or Youku,” says Cai. But Cai doesn’t think it’s im­pos­si­ble for them to pay for con­tent in the fu­ture. “If all the apps start charg­ing, it will be OK for me to pay,” says Cai.

On the other hand, though smart­phones and mobile apps are in­creas­ingly ac­cepted among the mid­dle-aged and the el­derly, their en­thu­si­asm for square dance seems to have reached a plateau. Many dama have found al­ter­na­tive ways to ex­er­cise. “We don’t dance any more,” says a for­mer dancer sur­named Tian from Liaon­ing prov­ince. “Now we play ping pong or bad­minton ev­ery­day; some­times we go to kick shut­tle­cock in the fit­ness cen­ter. It’s more in­ter­est­ing than square dance, and the en­vi­ron­ment is bet­ter.”

Oth­ers choose to go to the gym. Wang, a 56-year-old Beijing res­i­dent, prefers yoga and belly dance classes at the gym to square danc­ing. “Ex­er­cise in places like a public park? It will be ir­reg­u­lar. Work­ing out in a gym, you can have classes at the same time ev­ery­day. But if you ex­er­cise out­side, maybe you just do it once, and never go again,” says Wang.

Fan also agrees that it’s hard to see an­other boom in dance, but be­lieves it won’t be hard for the square dance mar­ket to main­tain a cer­tain scale at least for a few years. “Maybe the form of dance will change—like, re­cently the ‘square shuf­fle dance’ is very pop­u­lar. But I don’t think square dance will come to the end in the near fu­ture, be­cause old peo­ple will con­tinue to work out in the square.”

Cai also has faith in square dance. She claims com­pared with other ways of ex­er­cises, square dance is eas­ier to learn and take part. “It means joy, get-to­gether, and a spe­cial land­scape of Chi­nese dama,” Cai says. But just a few days af­ter TWOC’S in­ter­view, Cai ap­peared at a new gym near her home— she’d just bought an 800 RMB trial mem­ber­ship.


A square-dance per­for­mance at the open­ing cer­e­mony of a se­niors' sports meet­ing held in Shaoyang, Hu­nan prov­ince

Screen­shots of squaredance web­sites Tang­dou (left) and Jiu Ai Square Dance

Nearly 1,000 dama danc­ing in a square in Huai'an, Jiangsu prov­ince

Beijing gym-go­ers prac­tic­ing yoga

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