Growing up, we’ve been told stories about dragons. But in most of the fairytale stories we’ve heard, dragons were evil large-winged creatures that breathed fire and destroyed the lives of innocent people. In China, the opposite is true. To the Chinese, the dragon is a sacred mythical creature, held in very high esteem. They look at dragons as guardians sent down by the heavens to aid and protect mankind.
As such, dragons are a large symbol and identity of the Chinese people. It is incorporated in almost all aspects of China, from the architecture to the cuisine and in every celebration through activities like dragon boat festival and the dragon dance.
The dragon dance is perhaps the most revered in China. It is performed in many Chinese festivals and is considered a major symbol of Chinese culture. Understanding the importance of the dragon dance requires you to first understand its origin and meaning. In this post we will cover that and as a bonus, how the dance is performed, from costume to dance steps.
What Is the Dragon Dance for Chinese New Year?
In Chinese, the dragon dance is known as long or longdeng. It is considered an important Chinese traditional dance and so is performed during many special occasions like weddings and birthdays as well as many of the Chinese festivals. Some of the festivals include Mid-Autumn Festival and the Lantern Festival. The most important festival where the dance is performed, however, is the Spring Festival, popularly known as the Chinese New Year or sometimes the Lunar Year.
Dragons, according to Chinese mythology, are said to represent wisdom, strength, power, and good fortune. They are believed to be a source of good luck. As such dragons are considered among the four auspicious mythical creatures in Chinese mythology. The dragon dance is closely related to the tradition of worshiping dragons in China.
The Chinese New Year, on the other hand, is considered an important part of the Chinese calendar, where they usher in a new year. Because of this, all the traditions linked to this festival are meant to scare away evil and bring in good luck.
For this reason, performing the dragon dance during the Lunar Year is important as its seen as a way of dispelling all misfortune and inviting prosperity, luck, good health, and fortune with the new year. That is why you will always find performers holding up the dragon prop with poles and rhythmically moving it as per the steps of the dance.
History Of The Chinese Dragon Dance.
Like dragons, the dance existed even in the early period of Chinese history. It dates back almost 2 thousand years, where it’s first referenced in the historical book about the Han dynasty, Hanshu. According to the ancient texts, the dance was initially called Chunqiu fan lu. It was a less elaborate form of the dragon dance that was performed in ceremonies like worshiping the ancestors or praying for the rain. The dance gradually evolved to what was known as yu long many an. It was performed as a form of entertaining foreign diplomats in the royal court.
The performance started with many dancers holding up a prop resembling an auspicious mythical beast called sheli zhi shou. The dance mimicked the actions of the creature before transforming into a giant flounder in a pond. From the flounder turned into a large 8ft dragon. This form of entertainment was carried on until the Song and Tang dynasty periods where the dance became a ceremonious activity in important festivals like the Chinese New Year.
By the 19th century, the dragon dance had reached Singapore. Just like in China, over time the dance grew to become an integral part of Singapore’s traditions. In Singapore, it’s performed during opening ceremonies and special events like the annual Chingay festival. Also, thanks to Chinese immigration, today the dragon dance has been spread all over the world where Chinese in foreign countries continue to practice it.
How To Do the Chinese Dragon Dance.
To perform the dragon dance, one first needs the two important props. The first prop is the dragon, which is its head and body. It can be made of various materials, including, paper, grass, cloth, and bamboo among others. The joints of the dragon are made in odd numbers because it is considered auspicious. So, you may find a dragon with 9 up to 23 joints or more, however, more than 15 joints are considered to be too heavy for the dragon dance performance. The other major prop is the longzhou, which means dragon pearl. It is the large ball that the dragon is meant to chase during the dance.
This dance can be grueling, which is why the dancers are required to train through martial arts to build up the strength that will allow them to carry the dragon throughout the entire performance. Typically, the dragon dance involves 20 basic steps that take the dancers at least half a year to fully master. Even then they have to practice for another one or two years before they can properly dance. That is because the coordination between the dance and the music from the dragon drums and gong are key to the perfect rhythmic movement of the dragon.
Most dragon dance performances last for half an hour which is broken down into 10 minutes intervals, so the dancers have a break to rest. The performance usually starts with a man holding the longzhou on a large pole in front of the dragon’s head. While moving in tune to the accompanying music, the lead dancer moves the pearl from side to side as the dragon follows behind, trying to catch it with no success. Throughout the dance, the pearl continues to tease the dragon, while the dragon shows off its antics chasing after it. In some performances, there is more than one dragon involved. Such performances make the dance more complicated but impressive. As the dragons chase after the eluding dragon pearl, they seem to intertwine but never get entangles together.
Over time the dragon dance has evolved into many forms including, grass dragon, dragon lantern, hemp dragon, dragon head, luminous dragon, lotus dragon, and bench dragon. There are, however, two main recognized styles of the dance that is the Southern and Northern dragon dance.
With the southern style, the focus is on strength and momentum, not flexibility. Because it does not involve, many agile movements, the dragon used in the dance is larger and heavier compared to the northern style dragon. The major moves of this style are circling and making S-shape with the dragon’s body by holding the dragon’s head above its body. The northern styles, on the other hand, focuses more on the flexibility and rhythmic movement of the dragon. As such, the dragon used is smaller than the southern dragon and made of significantly lighter material. The dragon is also made of fluorescent material and hence the dance is performed in the dark, so the dragon appears to be illuminating. This increased the appeal of the dance.
The dragon dance has become widespread across the world, with the Northern style being the most popularly performed. You can watch the performances anywhere from Singapore, Malaysia, and China towns across the world. Hong Kong, China, however, remains the uncontended dragon dance capital, where competitions and performances are often held.