Published Wednesday, October 16, 19 | By PaulvHill
The history of Chinese dance dates back over 5000 years, when primitive cultures would perform ritual enactments of religious expression, in hopes of a prosperous hunt or a needed rain. But even in ancient times, dance was regarded by the Chinese as a physical exercise to harmonize the body and mind. Over the years, simple Chinese folk dances developed into intricate and beautiful performances that still exist in Chinese culture today.
Two of the main folk dances cherished by the Chinese are the Dragon Dance and the Lion Dance, which originated during the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD). The dragon symbolized power, courage, righteousness and dignity, and the dance was performed at the start of the new year to drive away evil spirits and bring good luck and fortune to the people. The Lion is regarded as a guardian creature, and the dance is also intended to drive away evil spirits.
By the 6th century, elaborate pantomime dances drawn from paintings and poetry were being performed before the Emperors in dynastic courts. Regarded as the precursors of Chinese theater, they blended movement with story and song. Court dances often incorporated martial art fighting forms or Confucian rituals. Aspects of these ancient dances can still be seen today in traditional Peking Opera.
In the Tang Dynasty, dances and music styles from outside of China were incorporated into Chinese dance and Chinese styles were passed onto other parts of the world, particularly Korea and Japan. Hundreds of young men and women were trained in dance and music at a school called the Academy of the Pear Garden.
Chinese dancers must begin training at a very young age and are required to study martial arts, acrobatics and stylized theatrical movements on a daily basis. They typically undergo a strict regimen to perfect bearing and form, and skills such as jumps, turns, flips, and complicated aerial techniques.
Western-style social dancing was unknown in China until its introduction by Europeans in the 19th century. In the 1920s taxi-dance halls, where male customers could rent female partners, became all the rage in Shanghai and dance hostesses were common public entertainers.
In the 1950’s, when Communist China was linked to Russia, dance was widely utilized for propaganda purposes. Dances were infused with Russian folk-style steps, and troupes served to draw crowds that were then indoctrinated with a Communist message. A number of Russian dancers taught in China until the 1960’s when relations between China and the Soviet Union deteriorated.
During Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution, dance was condemned as being “bourgeois and decadent” and therefore discouraged. The only entertainment allowed were the eight approved Revolutionary Operas, which included two ballets.