Asia has a bright tapestry of distinctive dances particular to its many different cultures. They are, at once, fiercely guarded traditional treasures and proud examples of the artistry and imagination of tribes and nations. These folk dances come from the history and heart of specific people, telling their stories as evocatively as any artifact or legend.
The People's Dance
Folk dance is an expression of the character of a people, reflections of the lives, societies, geographic and economic realities, and beliefs of ethnic or regional groups. The vast reach of Asia has produced an extravagance of colorful and captivating dances. Some are still as primal as the campfires around which they started, and some have evolved to the refined gestures of court decorum. There are far too many fascinating folk dances from Asia to consider in one brief glance. However, a quick survey of the remarkable range is an invitation to a more exhaustive exploration.
The earliest records of dance in China are more than 6,000 years old, hunting-dance rituals depicted on pottery shards. Original folk dances were likely harvest and sacrificial offerings to the gods. The element of invoking good fortune is still the heart of the favorite folk dances that have survived. The Dragon Dance and the Lion Dance from the Han dynasty (206 BC - 220 CE) are staples of Chinese Lunar New Year festivities. Each of China's 56 minorities has its own signature dance or dances, performed for seasonal celebrations or to mark important events.
Dance in Japan came from the simple working people, the fishermen and the farmers who were closely connected to the rhythms of the seasons. Good weather and good fortune were the driving intention of the initial ritual dances. Prayers for ancestors were embodied in other dances. One of the most beloved and frequently performed Japanese folk dances, the Bon Odori, is a basic circular movement around a specially constructed wooden building, a yagura. The ritual is Buddhist-inspired ancestry worship that takes place during the Obon festival and starts with practiced dancers who perform the well-known choreography. They are gradually joined by a more raucous and less precise crowd, until the entire street or stage is filled with joyous movement, and the ancestors are appeased for another year.
Folk dance in Korea can be traced back to around 200 BC and was rescued from near-extinction in the twentieth century. The strong influence of invasive cultures, primarily Japan, threatened to overwhelm indigenous art forms, and dance was especially endangered. But the fertility rites, harvest festival dances, and shaman-inspired movements were reclaimed and preserved and are performed all over the world today. The Buchaechum, an elaborate shamanic fan dance, is a cultural ambassador, with global performances of graceful female dancers in traditional hanbok or dangui costumes, forming butterflies and flowers with decorative peony-painted fans.
Engravings discovered on the famous Dong Son cast-bronze drums, dated most likely from around 500 BC, show dancers of the Lac Viet people. Those ancient performers settled the region that is Viet Nam today as early as 2879 BC, so the art of the dance may predate the astonishing cast-bronze artistry that developed later in the civilization. Seasonal festivals were occasions for dance rituals, and today's performances of the folk dances of the country include a version of the Chinese New Year's Dragon Dance. In South Vietnam, this is the Unicorn Dance, a gentler but more magical creature who appears on the first day of Tet (Vietnamese New Year), visiting all the shops and houses of a village. The unicorn is a long fabric body with a molded head, worn and "danced" by men who perform stylized moves, including a climactic human pyramid. Other folk dances evolved into the Court Dances, which are symbolic and elaborate heritage pieces that feature non la, conical palm-frond hats, lanterns, fans, and bamboo poles used by men and women dancers.
Tibetans fused song, dance, and music into a near-continuous celebration. Folk dances were part of every religious festival; a harvest circling of the field in autumn; a highlight of weddings; and a focus of Losar, the Tibetan Lunar New Year. Often, a traditional dance consisted of circles that included anyone who wanted to join in. The men danced on one side or on the outside or inside of the circle; the women danced opposite them. The circle was the symbol for peace and community and formed around a jug of chang -- a homemade barley brew -- or a small fire. Tibetan villages were separated by mountains, and each region evolved its own distinctive dance style. Central Tibet moves featured straight torsos and lively stamps, kicks, and steps -- step dancing. Eastern Tibet Kham dances picked up the graceful arm movements and high kicks of their neighbors to the East. Traveling minstrels performed breathtaking acrobatic moves accompanied by bells, cymbals, and drums. The dances, many of which imitated the movements of animals or birds, were dedicated to Buddhist saints and Tibetan yogis.
Indonesia is a vast island nation with strong religious underpinnings to its performance art. Folk dances, almost always accompanied by gamelan orchestra, were often based on the Hindu classic texts, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Other dances were shrine offering rituals. Still others were age-specific, traditional moves designed to teach young girls and boys the basics of the complex dances they would be expected to know as adults. One characteristic of Indonesian dance is its fluid, stylized grace. Formal Javanese dance is very precise and spiritual; the same dance freely interpreted by the populace may be extremely sensual. In Bali, dancers have a low center of gravity with bent legs, flexed feet and wrists, and isolations of torso, arms, and head. The Balinese Pendet dance is an introductory exercise in choreography for girls that is a beautiful dance in its own right.
With more than 1.2 billion people and a vast land mass encompassing numerous ancient cultures and traditions, India is a continent of folk dances, almost too many to catalog. Many dances are ornate religious expressions of Hinduism, with its multiple gods and wealth of myths and beliefs. But Buddhist, Jain, Sikh, Zoroastrian, and other influences inform Indian folk dance and song -- even occupation played a part in the development of dynamic combinations of music, costume, and movement.
- The Bhangra, a circle dance to drums, is the folk dance of the Punjab.
- Gujarat has the Garba, a circle and spiral dance dedicated to the goddesses Shakti and Durga.
- The dandiya is an exuberant complex percussive dance with sticks.
- The Biju, a dance of men and women with very stylized choreography and rapid mudra or hand movements, was developed in Assam.
- In Bengal and Odissa, the Chhau is an all-male exhibition of acrobatics, martial arts, Hindu religious themes, and character masks.
- Lavani is both song and dance, performed by Maharashtrian women in elaborate saris.
- In Rajasthan, the Kabeliya was developed from gypsy snake charmers who adapted to the banning of snake performances by transferring their snake-charming moves to the women of the troop as the men played traditional instruments.
A Never-Ending Story
The footwork, gestures, costumes, narratives, and rhythms, from snowbound kingdoms at the rooftop of the world to exotic palm-fringed islands in tropical oceans, have one thing in common. They each tell a story. Folk dances are whole-body storytelling with symbolic movements instantly recognized by their audiences. They are patterns, concepts, musical phrases and rhythms, costumes, and conventions handed down for generations. Some are rigidly codified and preserved. Some change, like a living language, with the times. However, in every case, the singular identities of the regional dances capture the spirit of people who stepped forward to become the music and the tale.