Chinese dance, with its vivid whirling ribbons, elaborate stylized movements, ethnically diverse costumes, and stories of China's past and its peoples, offers a tantalising glimpse into a complex and ancient culture. The mythical beasts and defining myths brought to life in Chinese dances celebrate a rich history, from the emperor's court to the distant countryside.
From Cave to Stage
Six-thousand-year-old Chinese pottery shards, retrieved from digs and caves by archaeologists, depict hunter-gatherer rituals with posed figures holding spears. It's likely that ritual dances were performed to ensure a good catch or in gratitude for a successful day of food-gathering. Early Chinese martial arts were strongly influenced by these dances. But it wasn't until the Han dynasty, from 206 BC to 220 CE, that most Chinese folk dances developed.
Farmers offered up dances to the gods and the ancestors, seeking bountiful harvests and protection from drought. Street performers thrilled crowds with martial arts demonstrations and gymnastic flips. Court dances, which were refined pieces performed for the emperor, were more formal and had roots in the Qin dynasty around the year 220 BC.
Chinese dance may be divided into two main styles: court dances and folk dances. These range from the classical choreography still used in the Peking Opera to the many representations of ethnic culture performed as popular festival fare.
The arts flowered in the Tang dynasty, 618 - 906 CE, interweaving poetry, painting, sculpture, music and dance into sophisticated amusements and cultural expressions for the upper classes. Dancers learned martial arts, gymnastics and expressive sculptural forms that were codes for classic stories and emotions. Court dances were reserved for the palace of the emperor and for ceremonies in Confucian temples and eventually migrated to the highly stylized Peking Opera.
Prince Qin's Cavalry
Prince Qin's Cavalry was a massive, spectacular dance with military maneuvers, battle formations and audience participation. It filled the stage with 100 singers, 100 musicians and more than 100 dancers who moved in a dozen variations of martial maneuvers. As the audience kept time by pounding the floor with their swords, the emperor's war chariots occupied downstage and foot soldiers were positioned upstage. The dancers formed a circle to the left and then a square to the right. The entire synchronized exercise was a military-readiness performance to remind the peaceful Tang dynasty that the threat of war required constant vigilance.
Nichang Yuyi (also known as The Feather Dress Dance or The Song of Enduring Sorrow) is a delicate lament about an emperor and his concubine, performed in feathered costumes. Tang dynasty emperor Xuan Zong wrote and choreographed this dance, which is still a popular tourist must-see in China due to its ethereal setting, costumes, and romantic story. The dancers act out the emperor's dream that includes a journey to the moon where he is entertained by a host of graceful performers. In the dance, the emperor awakens and tells the dream to his favorite concubine, who then dances it for him, fluttering around the stage in feathers and silk that enhance her refined court dance movements.
China has 56 distinct ethnic minorities, and each has traditional dances that reflect and express its culture. Miao, Dai, Mongolian and Tibetan minorities perform some of the most well-known dances, featuring ornate regional costumes and signature rituals and story lines. Westerners are most familiar with the Fan Dance and the Ribbon Dance, which are attention-grabbers with vivid, showy props. Other dances highlight rhythmic beats and cultural folklore.
Fans, used throughout Chinese history at every level of society for thousands of years, are colorful and fluid stage props, often stand-ins for blooming flowers, clouds, or lofty sentiments. In the Fan Dance, the dancer's body follows the lead of the fan, arcing and exploding into dynamic moves as the fans float in the air or snap open and closed.
The Ribbon Dance is emotive and expressive, with frequent leaps and twirls aiding in the constant shapes and spirals formed by the long silk ribbons. This dance emerged from ancient Han dynasty heroic legends, but the "dancing" ribbons were so mesmerizing that the choreography evolved to feature just the breathtaking formations traced in the air.
Dai dances take place to percussive beats, with specific drum beats for individual dances. Most of the choreography focuses on translating the moves of subtropical creatures to human movement. Dances feature exotic egrets, fish, butterflies, and peacocks. Mythical animals also appear, such as the gaduo, with its deer antlers on a lion's head, dog's mouth and elongated neck. Sinuous moves may be punctuated by the bobbing, jerking steps of birds walking with their chests pushed out, the arms flapping like wings.
Tibetan dance reflects the topography and lives of people who inhabit the high Himalayas, with the forward-slanted stance, energetic turns and jumps, and rhythmic, bouncy steps required for navigating steep climbs while carrying heavy loads. Male dancers wear high-heeled boots and both male and female dancers wear the traditional Tibetan tunics and trousers.
Mongolian dances mimic the horse culture and expansive open lands where the dances developed. Wide arms evoke the eagle's flight. High stepping, rearing back, and syncopated "gallops" pay homage to the historic equestrian lifestyle of the region. Expect to see chopsticks and bowls used as props, and elaborate headpieces to complement belted and embroidered robes.
The Hmong people, or the Miao, are among the oldest of China's ethnic groups and their dances display an important symbol of Miao wealth. Silver is highly prized as a sign of economic and social status, a talisman to ward off evil, and a magnet for happiness and prosperity. The jingling sound of necklaces, bracelets, headdresses, tiny bells and charms that adorn Miao dancers blends with distinctive drumming to inspire exuberant movement. The weight of the silver dictates the choreography. Swaying head, hips and hands; low, contained jump kicks; and leg moves that start with raising the unadorned upper leg first are characteristic of these dances as are spinning and fast moves to flare pleated skirts.
Fierce and Fortunate Lions and Dragons
Beastly creatures delight audiences young and old during the annual Chinese New Year festivities within the People's Republic of China and in the global diaspora. The world-famous Lion and Dragon dances are derived from folk dances. Visit the streets of the commercial areas in any Chinatown during the annual New Year celebration to listen to the pounding drums and view the antics of the costumed performers. Brightly painted tossing heads and synchronized snaking lines of dancers form the body of the lion who brings good fortune, or the dragon who chases away misfortune and evil spirits.
The Lion Dance
The Lion dance kicks off the Lunar New Year. It's a clownish, exuberant romp down commercial streets lined with parade goers and merchants. Two dancers hide inside an enormous papier-mache head with front paws and a back end, head-tossing and tail-wagging to comic effect as they travel from business to business receiving offerings from the merchants for prosperity in the coming year. Lions are not indigenous to China so the lion head typically looks more like a dragon or a monster.
The Dragon Dance
The Dragon dance is part of the Lantern Festival on the fifteenth night of the two-week New Year's festivities. A brightly painted tossing head and synchronized snaking line of dancers - the dragon's body - chase away misfortune and evil spirits as they bestow blessings on the crowd. Elaborate Dragon dances may be presented onstage in theatrical productions.
Characteristics of Chinese Dance
From the graceful fan dance to variations on martial arts, Chinese choreography shares some common characteristics:
- The movements are highly stylized. Every step and gesture follows a familiar pattern.
- The body moves through space using circular forms with the arms, hands, head gestures, footwork, and bending the torso, as well as traveling across the stage. All the shapes created are fluid and rounded, often sinuous.
- There is a distinct emphasis on hand-eye coordination.
- Musicality - every move determined precisely by the music - affects each gesture from the inclined head to the upturned fingers to the downcast eyes.
- Props are important: fans, sticks, hoops, ribbons, banners and other props play a central role in many dances.
- Emotion provides the motivation for the movement. Chinese dance is extremely expressive, and every gesture is a ritual to convey a story.
Where to Find Performances
There are numerous opportunities to see live performances of Chinese dance. Regional touring companies, such as Shen Yun Performing Arts and Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company, perform all over the United States. Look for special holiday programs around the Lunar New Year in late January and early February. If you live near a city with a large Chinese population, you can find year-round shows. These dances provide great entertainment and showcase the history and culture behind them.