Dance Tidbits: Dances of China

China definitely takes dance seriously. It not only consists of modern and traditional dance genres, but also takes great pride in performance of the ballet. Throughout history, China has always used dance in rituals and in their ceremonies and public celebrations. Supposedly, there are about 56 official ethnic groups in China and each minority group in China has its own folk dances.

The earliest forms of Chinese dance were written on oracle bones. What the oracle bones were is a type of artifact found in archaeological sites from the ancient civilizations in China from the 11th to the 16th century BC. These oracle bones are quite beautiful and unique, as they are made of ox shoulder blades and turtle shells carved with archaic forms of Chinese characters. These characters told stories of the future or the unknown by supernatural means. If you go to China, various


museums often have oracle bones displayed. So how the readings work is, the seer tells the future based on the cracks in an animal bone or turtle shell either in their natural state or after having been burned. There are many characters and they are depicted in various ways. The characters displaying various movements were most likely doing ritual and ceremonial dances.

The folk dances of China tell real stories of common life experiences. The stories may be about harvesting the crops or hunting for food, very real events that occurred in their lives. What makes it interesting is the tie-in to spirituality and the worship of the ancient gods that the Chinese believe affect these situations. China has many minority groups and they all have their own dances that represent the way they live and their culture. One of the most positive aspects of Chinese culture is the way the Emperors of olden days saw the need for dance to be a form of exercise. They thought it was important to stay healthy, especially after a long period of rainy weather. Perhaps this is where the introduction of martial arts began. In modern China, dance is a common form of exercise and you often see people in parks all over China engaging in “dance exercise.” A popular form of exercise is ballroom dance and of course martial arts.

Probably the most famous of all the traditional Chinese dances are the Dragon dance and Lion dance. In early days, it has been recorded that dancers dressed as animals and mythical beasts such as dragons. These dances done today are huge crowd pleasers in ceremonies because of the costuming and production. Light-weight materials are used with an assembly of a dozen people using poles to guide the dragon along. In some instances, dragon dancing can be done using hundreds of people in a more elaborate setting. There are over 650 dragon dances in China!

They say the Lion dance was introduced to China via India and Persia. It definitely creates quite a spectacle when you see dancers wearing this huge lion head with thick furry-like bodies in all kinds of shapes and colors. You almost can’t believe people are in there, manipulating this beast to perform. That’s some confining quarters.

Ballet is very popular in China. The first ballet school was established in 1954. The first teachers were Russian teachers who brought their expertise and disciplinary techniques to those who wanted to take ballet seriously. The National Ballet of China was founded in 1959. Ballet in China is greatly influenced by Western ballet. As China began to form ballet companies, the modern focus was to embrace all styles of ballet from around the world. Ballet has always been considered a special attraction to both tourists and the people of China.

Did you know that before the 20th century, it was not feasible for men and women from upper class families to dance together? It was considered taboo. However, ballroom dancing seemed to slip in around the 20th century. In the Shanghai nightclubs it became popular and early Communist leaders were also known to engage in ballroom dance. Ballroom dancing then disappeared again after the Cultural Revolution and reappeared after China’s liberation in the latter part of the 20th century.

The Chinese use choreography of traditional themes, using their imagination, eyes, hands and feet to express their great emotion for life in their dance performance. It is part of their culture to use spirits as their guides with subjects ranging from beautiful paintings and sculptures to heaven, earth and beyond. It brings performers great satisfaction to please the audience and engage them as much as possible. Chinese performers are devoted to bringing meaningful expression to the craft of dance performance. Chinese dancers are known for their intricate body movements and techniques. They take full advantage of using color, props magnificent costumes, dramatic scenes, songs, poetry and music to tell their elaborate stories.

Chinese dance is over 5,000 years old and when a person decides to become a professional dancer in China, even if they study ballet, modern dance or ballroom dance, they invariably come back in some way to their roots in traditional folk dance. It is part of their heritage and culture and it enriches their careers in the modern dance they are presently studying. They come to realize how timeless and magnificent traditional dance is to China (and to themselves) and they feel a sense of pride to carry on the legacy. That is a very redeemable characteristic of the Chinese people and it is no wonder that China creates such disciplined and magnificent performers in both the dance and sports world.

Thought Of The Week:

“If you see someone who needs a smile, give them one of yours.” – Billy Block


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Shane Meuwissen is the Media Specialist for Fordney Foundation.  He is a former dance instructor who know works with his company Slow Motion Dance Videos capture the beauty of dancing. If you would like to learn more about Shane and his video work, visit his website