At 72, most grannies drink tea, look after grandchildren and take a lot of medicine.
Wu Ying looked around and decided to abandon tai chi for rap, hip hop and dressing
like a gangsta.
Like many social networks, YouTube is regularly blocked in Beijing, China, where Wu Ying has been living for 72 years. But, with a great deal of perspective, Wu Ying hardly minds. Like an entire generation of Chinese, she spent her teens growing up in the new communist China – where any Western cultural influence was disowned – and has spent most of her life working hard in the day and taking care of her family at night, for the will of the Party and the good of the State.
If you met her today, you wouldn’t guess that the only equipment she's had for a lifetime's exercise is a wall to stretch against. Twice a week, in a glass-walled room, under flashing lights, a bandana wrapped around her head and decked out in fluorescent clothes, Wu teaches her peers new hip hop moves, her knees and elbows bending to b-boy beats.
Since retiring from an unassuming and serious life, Wu used to sit watching television to ease her sense of loss. And it was while watching the first National Hip Hop Dancing Competition that she thought 'Wow! I want to do that as well!' Bored by the slowness of tai chi and attracted by the hype around the new trend she began to train in the back of a gym, mirroring much younger, but more experienced dancers.
She learned the language of hip hop through careful observation. 'One, with an index finger, means “I am the best”', explains Wu, and demonstrates. 'To say “this is very cool”, you hold your hands open and point your index fingers to the front. And if you want to encourage or cheer for me, it's two hands open, flapping in the air above the head.'
Her stubbornness and self-tuition eventually paid off. Wu formed the Hip Hop Grannies Team and hasn’t looked back since. The team had their debut at the 2004 Beijing qualifier for the National Hip Hop Dance Championship. They walked away with third place, and a flood of prizes and accolades followed. 'God gave us young faces', explains Wu, 'and now that we're becoming very popular, cooking and health promoters want us to appear in their programs.' By the time you read this, the Grannies will have been guests on Walk of Fame, a famous TV program in China, and have featured in a movie on CCTV6. Besides their TV appearances, Wu also talks about the dark side of fame. She had to start coloring her hair, she says, after the stress of hip hop competitions turned it grey. She hasn't been able to convince grandpas to join the group, either. Men, Wu speculates, don’t like to move so much at that age.
When they're not training or setting new choreographies, the Grannies keep busy cultivating their style and look. But rejuvenating creams are never a subject for conversation. All through the market they chase ever-flashier XL T-Shirts and old-school sunglasses. Wu is pulling funny faces to the camera. 'Do I look ok? I don’t want to always look the same, or it’ll be too boring.'
The Hip Hop Grannies like to think they keep up with the times. Wu surfs the web in search of videos to improve her dancing skills. 'Stuff you can find on the internet goes beyond your imagination', she says, though she hasn't uploaded any videos of the Grannies. Clips uploaded in America and Britain are YouTube's nods to the elderly dance troupe.
I'm old-school but I love real new-school.
Wu Ying, 72, Beijing, China
Whilst certainly one of the most open-minded grannies around, Wu sticks to a strictly-personal interpretation of hip hop: 'the black people who originated hip hop in the streets of New York would dance with each other, releasing their feelings and opening their hearts to other people'. Wu has been told that some of the lyrics she dances to are very explicit. But, she thinks, they can hardly be that bad.