Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The dance that roars

Talk about fierce dancers!

With the Chinese New Year festivities fresh in mind, here is a look at that most challenging of pas de deux, the Chinese Lion Dance.
This traditional form of Chinese dance involves performers mimicking a lion's movements in an exaggerated lion costume. The dance form requires agility, grace, acrobatic skills and martial arts knowledge.  As with many arts that have spanned great distances and timespans, a variety of different styles have evolved.

The earliest references to Chinese Lion Dance date back to the 3rd century BC early Ch’in and Han Dynasties when the colorful lions were created as a means of expressing joy and happiness through dance. . Originally intended for the imperial elite, by the time of the Tang Dynasty the Lion Dance had become a New Year custom for the entire countryside. Beginning in the Ming Dynasty the element of martial arts was introduced.  The two styles are named North and South, referring to the geography on either side of the Long River.

Both South and North Lion are danced by two partners,  one as the head and one as the hind.  The North Lion's head is carved of wood and its body is covered with gold and red hair meatn to resemble a real lion. The northern lion has a mane and four legs and is generally more realistic than its southern counterpart. North style involves sophisticated elegant movments, especially somersaults and leaps.

The South lion has a fierce bearing and is made of five-colored cloth. This performance style emphasizes footwork and strength, either with 2 or 4 lion's 'legs'. Currently, the types of South Lion usually found in Hong Kong are either "Foshan Style" or "Heshan Style". Foshan Style lions have a large head and wide mouth, whereas Heshan Style lions have a narrow head and flat mouth.

In South lion dance, a "Big Head Buddha" with a palm-leaf fan in hand may tease the lion; while in North lion dance there may be a knight brandishing a bundle of flowers to draw the lion's attention. Gongs, drums and cymbals synchronise set the rhythm dance movements and actions and create the mood for the audience. The lion dance costumes used in these performances can only be custom made in speciality craft shops in rural parts of China, and have to be imported at considerable expense for most foreign countries outside Asia. 

Both areas of the lion dance emphasize a certain theme. The focus of the South is "Green-Plucking". The "Green" in "Green-plucking" can be lettuce, which carries the auspicious meaning of prosperity and energy in Chinese.  Plucking moves vary in difficulty based on where the items to be plucked are placed.  North lion dance highlights Lion with Ball and Two Lions Dance routines, sometimes with a whole 'family' of lions.

Regardless of regional differences, styles and techniques, the Lion Dance remains one of the most colorful,  exciting and whimsical forms of dance in China as well as the rest of the world.... Rowwwr! 
prepare to be amazed 

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The itsy bitsy dance

Ever seen anyone do a spider dance?
What would it look like?
Would they move slowly, deliberately and creepily like a big hairy tarantula?

There actually is such a dance, the tarantella, whose nature-inspired name has produced supernatural states for its dancers.

Etymology meets Entomology 

The name tarantella first crawled into use in 17th century Italy, as a term for a therapeutic form of dance believed to stave off the poisonous and mind-altering effects of Mediterranean Black Widow spider bites.  Victims engaged in vigorous rhythmic dances accompanied by tambourines, mandolins and accordians. The more frenzied the dance, the more likely the bitten person's chance of conquering and sweating out the poison's hysteria-inducing effects, if not death!

The trance that often accompanied the dancers' experience is much like that felt by techno-trance enthusiasts today.
The tradition persists in the area, and is known as "Neo-Tarantism." Many young artists, groups and famous musicians are continuing to keep the tradition alive. The music is very different—its tempo is faster, for one thing—but it has similar hypnotic effects, especially when people are exposed to the rhythm for a long period of time. The music is used in the therapy of patients with certain forms of depression and hysteria, and its effects on the endocrine system recently became an object of research. [per Wikipedia].

As with many dance forms, there are variations on the pure art form. In the case of the tarantella, there are about half a dozen subsets total, including that of a slow, elegant courtship dance designed for couples. Later, the name was adopted and adapted into works by Chopin, Liszt and Rossini.

To this day, feverish fans of the dance join together to celebrate this most esoteric of dances in something of a folk music dance-a-thon, where dancer and drummer do their best to tire out one another, and emerge as the last one standing.... both alive and well.