Traditional Dancing through China

Anyone who’s spent any amount of time in China can agree on this: the energy of the streets is unlike that of any other. While there are tons of bustling cities on this planet, the honest-to-god palpability found in China is unmatched. If you pay attention as you meander the streets of Beijing or Shanghai, for instance, you can get a real understanding of what the locals value, what they eat and how they interact with each other and other foreigners. This last tid bit can come in so many forms, and what we’re zeroing in on today is the form of dance, a means popular for not only communicating but celebrating.

Chinese girls ready for dancing

Throughout this vast land that is China, there are a variety of traditional, regional dances, each of which has its own unique history, significance and, of course, styles of performance. Let’s dig into some of our favorites.

Yangge Dance

This folk dance is derived from a style that was popular during the Song dynasty, known as “Village Music.” Popular amongst the older, northern Chinese people, yangge dance involves the people crowding into the streets in the evening, coming together to dance in either a line or in a big circle.

China dance performance

Traditionally, they wear red or green robes, tied at the waist with red silk ribbons. Complimentary music accompanies the dancing, coming from such instruments as the waist drums, trumpets, and gongs. Sometimes, the dancers will also wave fans as they twist and weave their bodies.

Fun fact: The Yangge dance was once used by the Chinese Communist Party as a method of inspiring the people to support the political movement. At this time, it was referred to as the “reform yangge.”

Yao Gu Dance

With its roots in the Northern Shaanxi province of Midwest China, where it originated over 2000 years ago, this “Yao Gu” form of movement literally means the dance of the waist drum. It is reflective of the wild, peasant life of the people of this region, who were so secluded from the rest of the world that they developed such a unique form of expressing themselves, as seen in this dance. It is believed that the waist drums they beat during the unrestrained, invigorating dance were at one time beat by immortals in heaven, dispelling evil spirits.

China dance monument

It’s viewed as a collective activity and can be even used as a form of exercise, with its quick pace that is set by the drums. Those partaking in the gymnastics of this dance—which can range in number from a few to several thousand—do so by forming a circle and jumping around while playing their drums with ribbon-covered sticks. The atmosphere is incredibly bold and lively, and you can feel it!

Today, there is often other music playing alongside the drummers’ own. Where can you see it? On the streets! Teams often are practicing enthusiastically, especially in the Ansai County, where this style of dancing comes from.

Dragon Dance

Originating in the Han dynasty, the dragon dance has been traditionally used in the celebration of cultural events. You should expect to see the dragon dance in action during the first two weeks of the Chinese New Year; with a parade every day; you’ll get ample opportunity to see the dance, as it closes the parade each time.

The dragon represents wisdom, power, fertility, and wealth. It is believed to ward off bad luck and evil spirits, especially when performed on New Year’s Day. The larger the dragon, the more luck it is thought to bring. So while it may be as tiny as two meters long, other times it will reach a length as astounding as one hundred meters.

The body of the dragon is often green, representing a bountiful harvest, or else it will be yellow, representing the Chinese empire. Any touches of gold or silver coloring are meant to represent prosperity, while red is symbolic of excitement and good fortune.

Dragon dance

The dance features about a dozen performers holding the dragon, crafted of aluminum and plastic, up on poles. These they wave up and down to make it seem as if the dragon is dancing, while the dancers themselves weave to create a wave-like pattern in their procession. Alongside the dragon, there are often kung fu performers, acrobats, drums, horns, and lion dancers.

If you happen to see a man with a ball on a stick leading the dragon in the dance, this man is representing the pearl of wisdom, with the idea being that the dragon is chasing insight and knowledge.

Lion Dance

The lion dance, like the dragon dance, is meant to bring good luck. The lion specifically is intended to recall Chinese folklore, where the animal is a focal point. This form of movement has been traditionally performed as a type of entertainment for the courts, especially in the days of the Tang Dynasty. Filled as it is with so many acrobatic moves, those taking part in the dance are often martial arts practitioners, with great agility and fitness.

The lion is created in a similar fashion as the dragon, with a group of dancers who hold up the body as they wind down streets. The people will engage by putting money-stuffed red envelopes into the mouth of the lion. The idea behind this? They are helping to provide good luck and fortune while donating to the school of martial arts that is running the dance.  Alongside the lion are drums, gongs, cymbals, and a figure of the laughing Buddha, which add to the joyful parade.

Lion dance performance

Today, instead of being a dance for the king’s court, it is often performed during New Year’s Day, taking place on the streets during the celebrations.

So, now that you know their backstories get yourself to China and see the performances yourself! Whether you witness the special lion and dragon dances during Chinese New Year, or you encounter the yao gu and/or yangge dances on the streets, we can assure you; you’re in for a beautiful, cultural treat!

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Cez Krol

Travel blogger at eTramping
Cez lives in China like a local for the past 4 years. Apart from speaking the language, he loves to discover more about this unique country of extreme contrasts. He shares his China experiences here at Sublime China and on his blog eTramping, so go and check out what's out there for you in China.
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