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Don't folk out: Five Chinese dances to know

Orchids, peacocks & other influences


Published: 5 Sep 2022

Pen 2

Updated: 2 May 2024

Time taken : ~10mins

When it comes to Chinese dance, many would picture willowy dancers swaying their long sleeves to court music, or a lion dance troupe entertaining crowds with acrobatic stunts. Unsurprisingly, these popular conceptions are a far cry from the art form’s true breadth and depth. Aside from the two overarching genres of classical and folk, Chinese dance also boasts a diverse array of repertoires from the country’s 56 ethnic groups, each with its own distinct movements and practices.

What’s in a name? Differences between classical and folk

Broadly speaking, Chinese dance comprises Chinese classical dance (中国古典舞, zhongguo gudian wu) and Chinese folk dance (中国民间舞, zhongguo minjian wu).

Chinese classical dance

Unlike what its name suggests, the Chinese classical dance that we know today actually took root in the 1950s. Integrating the movement forms of sources such as traditional Chinese opera and martial arts, practitioners seek to distil and portray the essence of Chinese classical aesthetics and culture. As such, the genre is better understood as a contemporary take on Chinese sensibilities in dance, rather than the practice of dances from a bygone era. The innovative spirit of Chinese classical dance is known to be popular amongst the country’s elite circles.    

Chinese folk dance

In contrast, Chinese folk dance emerged from the daily lives of the common people. Performed on occasions ranging from harvests to funerals, happiness to sorrow, the genre has been around since the dawn of mankind. Each ethnic group in China has its own dance culture that adds colour to festivities and encourages community bonding. Since the 1940s, Chinese folk dance has gained the attention of artists, entering the mainstream and curriculum of national dance academies. 

Discover the signature moves of five folk dances and see if you can spot them at Esplanade's Chinese Dance Fiesta from 26 Apr – 5 May 2024.


Ballet of the East: the Flower Drum Lantern

On 28 March of the lunar calendar, counties along the Huaihe River would celebrate the legacy of Yu the Great—a mythical emperor who shielded the population from disasters through sophisticated flood control works—with a grand spectacle of the Flower Drum Lantern (花鼓灯, huagu deng). 

A representative folk dance of China’s Han majority, the Flower Drum Lantern sports a lively mix of dance, drama and percussive music on the drums and gong. From the region’s unique geography between the Yellow River and Yangtze River emerged the best of both worlds, with the dance showcasing the boldness of the country’s north and the elegance of the south. 

In general, a female dancer in the Flower Drum Lantern is known as a lanhua (兰花, orchid), while a male dancer is called a gujiazi (鼓架子, drum stand). The performance’s theatrical element involves lanhua and gujiazi interacting with each other through vivid expressions and hearty banter. The lanhua’s choreography is characterised by fluttering steps on demi-pointe, thus giving rise to the dance’s popular term “Ballet of the East” amongst international audiences. With a fan in her right hand and a handkerchief in her left, she adds a sprightly touch to the performance through poetic gestures. One example is shouda liangpeng (手搭凉棚, building shelter with one’s hand), where she lifts her fan to suggest the idea of shade.


Fowl play: the Dai Peacock Dance

Based in the verdant flatlands of Yunnan, the Dai people observe similar traditions as the neighbouring countries of Laos and Thailand. This includes the three-day Water Sprinkling Festival (泼水节, poshuijie) in mid-April, which sees everyone dousing one another with water for good luck.

Accompanying the cool splashes and merrymaking are the sinuous movements of traditional dances. With Yunnan’s rainforests being home to abundant wildlife, the Dai people turn to the mannerisms of animals for inspiration. A shining example is the Peacock Dance (孔雀舞, kongquewu). Following the gentle beats of the elephant drums and gong, one to three dancers would imitate the auspicious bird’s agile walk, magnificent display of feathers and search for water, especially through hand gestures. The movement of their feet is characterised by quick rises and slow landings (快提慢落, kuaiti manluo), spotlighting the peacock’s poise.

A signature pose across Dai dances is the sandaowan (三道弯, Three Flexing). Squatting, the dancer tilts three points of her body—namely from the upper body to hip, hip to knee and knee to sole—in opposite direction to form S-shaped curves. The contours of her body display a keen sense of rhythm, embodying the local ideal of being gentle yet firm.


A gift from the ‘roof of the world’: Tibetan dance

In the spirit of welcoming a guest, showing respect for one’s elders or expressing affection, Tibetans would present the xianziwu (弦子舞). The men would play the two-stringed musical instrument xianzi, and a grassy field becomes an arena for the whole community to partake in the auspicious dance. Though deeper in tone than the erhu, the rhythm of the xianzi is fast and bright. Paired with high notes sung by the dancers, it demonstrates the forthrightness of Tibetans.

Crowned “the roof of the world”, life on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau is not for the faint of heart (and breath). Every facet of Tibetan culture is attuned to their homeland’s high altitude and low oxygen levels, with traditional dances like the xianziwu being no exception. A key move is the yishunbian (一顺边, moving along one way), which involves the dancer stretching her hand and foot of the same side out, with the long-sleeved chuba (their traditional costume) adding a layer of lyricism to the choreography. This comes from the habit of balancing oneself on the steep, rugged roads. Similarly, the common posture of leaning the upper body forward and bending one’s knees also serves the practical purpose of oxygen retention.


Life’s lyricism: Yi dance

According to folklore, the ancestors of the Yi people would build large fires to ward off dangerous beasts. As their shadows shrink and soar with the crackling flames, they would stomp their feet with gusto as a demonstration of strength. Over time, this survival tactic has morphed into an important aspect of their traditional dance. 

Performed on joyous occasions like weddings, dage (打歌) is a communal dance where participants hold hands to form a circle and move in anti-clockwise direction. Accompanied by exuberant sounds of instruments like the lusheng or yueqin, the choreography focuses on lively footwork, as seen in the frequent lifting, stomping and quick turning of one’s feet. The dance is also interspersed with group shouts as a display of solidarity and prowess.

Other noteworthy aspects of Yi dances are their references to domestic activities or physical labour. The former manifests as dainty gestures like the spooling of thread. The latter is evident in the dance’s emphasis on the lower half of the body, derived from the habit of supporting bulky loads like firewood or even children on one’s hips.


Turning up the volume: Uyghur dance

A Uyghur wedding ceremony feels incomplete without the Sanam (赛乃姆, sainaimu); guests and the blissful couple would revel in the dance in between other activities like riddle guessing along with the passing of flowers and wine. A group of musicians open the performance with slow percussive and string music, with the hand drum in the spotlight. They are joined by a singer who delivers familiar tunes and improvises new lyrics based on the live scene.

The Sanam’s choreography is much more attuned to upper parts of the body like the head, shoulders and wrists. Maintaining an upright posture, the dancer’s gestures reference daily acts such as holding a hat or looking afar. These swift movements showcase her braids and a sense of vivacity. Her heeled footwear clicks to the steps of sanbu yitai (三步一台, three steps and one lift), which sees her pacing her steps in circular motion and lifting one foot with a quick tremble at every third step.

As the performance reaches its climax, the dancer quickens her steps to the increasingly fervent tempo of the hand drum and goads others to join the camaraderie. Her persuasion is met with much glee, as the music and singing increase in volume, and the audience clap along in good cheer.

As for Chinese classical dance...

Watch this episode of National Arts Council Singapore's From The Living Room series, featuring host Pam Oei and dancer Li Ruimin.

Catch the Chinese Dance Fiesta taking place at Esplanade from 26 Apr – 5 May 2024.

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