The Dragon dance (simplified Chinese: 舞龙; traditional Chinese: 舞龍; pinyin: wǔ lóng) is a form of traditional dance and performance in Chinese culture featuring the eastern dragon, a Chinese symbol of happiness and prosperity.
Like the lion dance, it is most often performed during festivals (especially for Chinese New Year). It is performed by a team of dancers who manipulate a long, flexible dragon figure using poles positioned at regular intervals along its body.
History of the Dragon Dance
Oriental dragons, who are water spirits, are believed to possess among their qualities power, dignity, fertility, wisdom and happiness. Their appearance is frightening, but they are benevolent in disposition, and thus have come to be the emblem of imperial authority. The dance movements traditionally symbolize this historical role of dragons as figures of power and authority.
During the Han Dynasty, various forms of dragon dance are mentioned. Rain dances performed during droughts often involve images of dragons, which were associated with rain in ancient China, such as the Yinglong dragon or the Shen-long dragon, which determined how much wind and rain was needed.
The Chunqiu Fanlu, a text written by Dong Zhongshu in the Han Dynasty, contains a description of a kind of dragon dance to bring rain, performed by children and adults, accompanied by clay dragon figurines; their number and color varied according to the time of the year.
Other dances involving dragons appear in baixi (百戲), a kind of performance popular at the same time, akin to the Chinese circus, in which actors in disguise (象人) imitated the movements of animals, fish, and dragons. In his Poem of the Western Capital (西京賦), Zhang Heng mentions several of these mimes, such as a scene where a fish changes into a dragon.
These ancient dances are quite distant from the present dragon dance; their depictions on bas-reliefs show bulky figures, unlike today's light dragons allowing more realistic manipulations.
These dances continue to be mentioned in the Tang and Song dynasties. For example, in the Dongjing Meng Hua Lu (Dreams of the Splendors of the Eastern Capital, a Song Dynasty work), there is a description of dragon lantern (龍燈)-like figures used during the lantern festival, a dragon made of grasses and cloth, inside of which many candles were placed.
These lanterns are carried through the streets at night during the festival, and this parade may have evolved into the modern dance (which is most often performed during the day).
Various other dragon dances have appeared in China. For example, in Tongliang xian, a snake-totem cult gave rise to a dance during the Ming dynasty, which became popular during the Qing dynasty. In Zhanjiang, in the northwestern part of the country, a dragon dance was performed during the Ming dynasty.
In Zhanjiang, Guangdong province, the dragon is formed by a human chain of dozens or even hundreds of dancers; in Pujiang xian, the dragon's body is made of wooden stools. There may be more than 700 dances. There may be more than 700 distinct dragon dances.
After the revolution, the Chinese regime promoted a variety of traditional dances , which contributed to the popularity of the current form of dragon dance, which is now widely practiced not only in China, but in Chinese communities around the world.
The Structure of the Dragon
The dragon's sinuous body is made up of articulated sections supported by poles, with two special sections for the head and tail; it is assembled by connecting series of hoops in each section. Traditionally, dragons were made of wood, with a bamboo frame of hoops, all covered with rich fabrics; in modern times, these materials have been replaced by aluminum and lighter plastics.
The length of the dragons generally ranges from 25 to 35 meters for acrobatic dance models, and from 50 to 70 meters for parade and ceremonial models. However, these sizes depend on the resources available, as a small organization cannot afford a dragon that is too large and requires special skills and excessive expense to handle.
A size of 34 meters divided into nine main sections, supported by 81 hoops, is generally recommended, but longer dragons of up to 46 sections exist, and exceptionally large dragons are sometimes built in an attempt to bring the greatest possible luck to the community; the current record (approved by Guinness) is a dragon over 5 km long.
Historically, the dragon dance could be performed with a variety of colors and types of dragons, but green is most often chosen as the main color, symbolizing a bountiful harvest. Other colors include: yellow, symbolizing empire, gold or silver, symbols of prosperity, and red, representing joy.
Dragon Dance Execution
The dragon dance is performed by a team highly trained to imitate the sinuous and undulating movements attributed to these river spirits. Synchronization of the different parts of the dragon is essential to achieve a realistic effect, and in particular the head, which can weigh up to 12 cattys (14.4 kg), must coordinate with the body movements and the rhythm of the drum.
The fifth section, located in the middle of the body, gives the indication of the movements of the whole. The dragon is often preceded by a dancer holding a spherical object symbolizing a pearl.
The choreography of the dance depends on the skills of the dancers. Codified figures include "cloud cave", "whirlpool", "pearl search", or "dragon encircles pillar". These movements have a symbolic meaning, for example "the search for the pearl" shows that the dragon is always searching for wisdom.
The basic movement of the dragon resembles that of a wave, and is achieved by successive swings of each section. More complex formations are limited only by the creativity of each team, the most common being a spiral run that causes the dragon's body to spin and twist, forcing the dancers to jump over certain body sections.
Other advanced maneuvers include various corkscrew rotations, and acrobatic moves where the actors climb on each other's legs or shoulders to increase the height of the dragon's movements.
Participating in a dragon dance team requires both athletic and artistic skills, which is why it is often done by martial artists. The basic techniques are simple to learn, but it takes a lot of training to achieve proper team coordination.
A double dragon dance (rarely shown in the West) involves two troupes of dancers intertwining their dragons. Even more rarely, performances involving the traditional nine dragons (nine symbolizing perfection) are sometimes seen; such dances, requiring a large number of participants from several organizations, are only possible under the patronage of a regional or national government.
Many dragon dance competitions are held around the world. Strict rules govern the structure of the dragon and the movements allowed, aiming to emphasize the speed and agility of the dancers. The dragon's head is smaller, allowing for whip-like movements; the body parts are made of aluminum and PVC.
Performances last between 8 and 10 minutes, and are accompanied by a percussion orchestra.
Recently, glowing dragons (painted with fluorescent paints that glow in the dark) have appeared in competition.
Dragon Dance In the arts
- Lawrence Ferlinghetti's poem, The Great Chinese Dragon, published in his 1961 anthology, Starting from San Francisco, is inspired by the dragon dance. In Earl Lovell's novel, The Great Chinese Dragon, the dragon dance is the subject of a number of poems.
- In Earl Lovelace's novel, The Dragon Can't Dance, the theme of dance and carnival is used to explore history and social change in the Caribbean.
- Arthur Ransome describes dragon dances in Missee Lee, part of the Swallows and Amazons series, set in 1930s China.
- Once Upon a Time in China 4: The Dragon Dance describes a dragon dance tournament organized by the Germans to test the Chinese.