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The Danceable City: Aging Women Improvising Health Practices in Beijing's Interstitial Spaces, 2004-2010


The objective of this dissertation is to examine how older, urban Chinese residents appropriate interstitial spaces in Beijing to improvise ways to pursue healthy aging through dance. Observations, interviews and surveys were conducted with retired residents who danced for exercise inside their communities over the course of three fieldwork visits: 2004-06, summer of 2007, and spring and summer of 2010. Interview data collected from exploratory fieldwork in 2004-06 informed the design of a survey that was later deployed in 2007. A total of 395 dancing residents were surveyed in 2007. Further semi-structured interviews were conducted in 2007, as well as community sketch mapping, to discover whether dancers encountered new constraints or opportunities in the urban landscape since the previous visit. In 2010, follow-up surveys and interviews were again collected to see whether the hosting of the Olympic Games affected dancing in communities. Qualitative analysis for the dissertation focused mainly on the interviews and survey responses collected in 2007, as well as interviews and sketch maps collected in 2010.

In this study, I examine the experience of older urban residents who live in a rapidly modernizing city. I describe how changes in the social norms of elder care have placed aging residents in a precarious position because expectations that younger family members will care for older family members are changing. I show that dance becomes tactic that many older residents utilize in order to maintain their health, to not "burden" their families, and to avoid institutionalization. Dance has other useful social roles: it provides residents a way to keep social networks intact and creates a platform for dancers to share news with one another, including new-found information on how to stay healthy.

Through observations, surveys, mapping, site visits, and interviews with dancers, I show that aging Beijing residents who dance outdoors for exercise are experiencing increasingly greater difficulty finding appropriate dance sites in the modernized version of their city. Through mapping dancing groups' migrations in search of new spaces, I examined dancers' tactics of adaptation, improvisation, and appropriation of left-over spaces. However, I discovered that even the most dedicated dance groups are limited by how much they can adapt before they are forced to give up dancing altogether. This leads me to conclude that a reevaluation of Beijing's rapid urbanization program as experienced by urban seniors who are pursuing healthy aging through dance is sorely needed, if in fact, Beijing is to remain a senior-friendly, danceable city.

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