The dance never stops: Granny fitness club finds new home

Well-known sports photographer, 80-year-old Hong Nanli, has a secret life as leader of a dance club for women in the best years of their lives.
The dance never stops: Granny fitness club finds new home
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

Hong Nanli (left) at her aerobic dance club

Hong Nanli, 80, has worked as a sports photographer for four decades.

Not only her fellow journalists, but athletes and coaches, hold in high regard her determination and perspicacity in a profession considered more suited to men or younger people. The equipment she lugs is heavy and the jostling for shooting angles, often fierce.

Despite her exalted status as a photographer, Hong keeps a low profile. Few know anything of her other "secret" identity.

Hong is doyenne and director of a women's aerobic dance club, principally for those in the over 50s. But at the end of last year, the future of the 26-year-old club was thrown into doubt when large scale renovations began at Shanghai Workers Cultural Palace, home to their regular training sessions since 1992.

It was difficult to find a new venue, so Hong appealed to many friends and colleagues in the media to find a new home for the club.

“Had it not been for our uncertain future, I would have kept the club as little known as it was – just a warm and private place, a second home for its members,” Hong told Shanghai Daily.

It was not long before Waitan Community Cultural Activity Center in Huangpu District gave Hong's club leave to use the center’s dance room twice a week.

The club has about 15 long-term members. Perhaps not the most aged aerobic dance club in town, it is definitely one of the most demanding. Compared to line dancing in parks and communities, Hong’s requirements are strict. 

She continuously corrects the poses of her members, adjusting the angles of their limbs, while explaining and demonstrating each movement.

“One of the crew once got annoyed by my strictures. She said that all she wanted was some leisure exercise. 

"My principle is that once you put effort into something, you must give it all you have. I told them that strict practice would breed better bodies and make them look prettier. They had no complaints: All women want to be pretty,” Hong laughed.

The dance never stops: Granny fitness club finds new home
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

Hong Nanli is a strict, but supportive, teacher.

The dance never stops: Granny fitness club finds new home
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

Club members are mainly in their 50s and 60s, but all feel younger through their efforts.

Well-known as a sports photographer, few know much about Hong's early days as a gymnast. 

Arthritis put paid to her career early, and she became a coach in 1959, at the age of only 21.

Twenty years later, in 1979, Hong became a photographer with the publicity department of Shanghai sports authority, but her love of gymnastics, and of teaching gymnastics, never waned.

She started to organize classes and activities for both retired athletes and those with no gymnastic experience.

Her current club dates back to 1992 and most members have no athletic background. 

Some members are as close as family after more than a quarter of a century of acquaintance.

“It’s not easy to keep a club like this running for so many years. We cherish it so much,” said 59-year-old Wang Xiaonong, who joined over 20 years ago. “I was working in a department store when I joined the club. The classes were from 7am to 8:30am, three times a week. I would get up early and catch the first bus across half a city to reach the class.”

Wang described how members had come and gone. Some moved house. Some could no longer spare the time with the demands of grandchildren to take care of. But Hong's notorious persistence inspired the core members of the club who have kept their training sessions running.

“It's not just about keeping ourselves svelte, though we are happy to be so slim. The exercise has helped some of us deal with other health problems. Most importantly, it kept us happy and positive, and therefore in a decent physical condition,” said Wang Longzhen, 66. 

“Hong is our leader and our idol. We have all resolved to keep dancing into our 80s, just like her."

The dance never stops: Granny fitness club finds new home
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

Hong creates dance movements carefully to fit her members' abilities.

Hong said her dance movements are carefully conceived to fit senior people’s conditions, and to avoid putting too much stress on their knees and fragile joints. Some members have come up with new ideas and movements from things they have found online themselves. It is no longer just aerobic exercise – it's folk, zumba, disco, waltz, cha-cha-cha… you name it, they'll dance it.

Aged 80, it is no surprise that Hong can no longer join her friends for every class, but she has two assistant coaches now. Other members have clear duties including taking charge of music and the sound equipment.

Hong drafted a “health agreement” for members to sign, so that everyone practices according to their own abilities and no one goes over their limit.

“I want to be sure that the club keeps running even if I can no longer lead them,” said Hong. “I have not made any profit in all these years. This is all for the sake of the sisterhood.”

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