Long Live the Dragon.

October 24, 2007

The dragon dance is believed to have originated in China during the Ching dynasty. The dragon of the ancient dances consisted of candle-lit lanterns which represented the dragon’s head, body and tail.


Needless to say, great skill was required in the performance, not least of all because one wrong movement could result in a dragon’s segment literally going up in smoke.


Today, candles have been abandoned in favor of a brightly colored phosphorescent dragon’s body which glows in the dark. To enhance the illusion of a living writhing dragon, the performers usually wear black, making themselves less conspicuous. During the day, different types of dragon are used – the golden and silver dragons which are made of a sparkling material to add vibrancy and glitter to the performance.


The dragon consists of segments which range in numbers from nine to more than twenty. The diameters of the dragons, however, are usually limited to under 40 cms to maintain correct proportions.


Before a dragon can be used in a performance, it has to be “brought to life”, so to speak. This is done by the ceremonial marking of the dragon’s eyes, where his life is believed to reside.


In Singapore, the art of dragon dancing originated mainly from the Fukien province in Southern China. It has been kept alive largely through the efforts of dragon dancing troops like the “Singapore Dragon and Lion Athletic Association”.


Under the instruction of Mr. Ting Wan Kee, this association has been active performing on festive occasions and national events like the Chingay Procession and the National Day Parade for as many as 25 years.


The story portrayed in the dragon dance is simple – the dragon tries to capture the pearl which hovers in front of him. Legend has it that the pearl constitutes the dragon’s life essence. It is spitted out by the dragon that then plays with it. However, it will have to be retrieved or the dragon’s life will be literally lost. The pearl, hence, plays a major role in the dragon dance, determining the movements of the dragon and setting the pace of the dance.


In dragon dancing, stamina is the essential foundation upon which all other skills are built. The dragon has to be kept in continuous motion, and this is no mean feat considering that the dragon’s head alone weighs between 10 to 15 kgs. As for the tail, what it lacks in weight is more than amply makes up for in complexity of movement.


To top it all, the dragon does not simply run around in circles. It stoops, rears, twists and turns in it bid to capture the elusive pearl, accompanied by the beating of the drums and clashing of cymbals.


Co-ordination and skill, therefore, make all the difference between a scintillating performance and a dragon tied up in knots. Even seemingly simple man oeuvres like the changeover of performers require a technique which ensures safety and allows the performance to continue without a hitch. The changeover, which occurs every 10 minutes enables the dragon to be kept moving at the brisk pace, set by the pearl.


To learn the art, constant training over a period of six to eight months is necessary. While individual skills and stamina are important, a good deal of training also goes into the coordination which is essential when a number over 50 peoples are involved in each performance. In all dragon dance troupes, different duties have to be divided out among the various members. These range from the actual maneuverings of the dragon to the handling of the drums and cymbals. In the latter activity, the instruments used are small compared to those used in the lion dance. The overall effect is a less intense and more melodious accompaniment to the dragon’s performance.


The dragon dance has carved itself a well deserved niche in Chinese tradition. Elsewhere in Chinese scene, the awesome figure of the dragon had also left its touch – prayers offered to dragon gods, art and opera depicting dragon myths, combat techniques based supposedly on the dragon’s movements…


But ultimately it is the dragon dance which, though unique in itself offers something more. It lives on, a tribute to group effort rather than personal achievement.


A reminder to all “descendents” of the Dragon.


Long Live the Dragon!


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