China is not only a geographically vast and varied country, but is also very culturally diverse thanks to the many communities from different ethnic minorities living across different parts of the country.
This diversity has paved the way for the emergence of a variety of styles of folk dance performed among differing communities from different regions.
Without a doubt, the folk dance of the Wa people is one of the most mysterious and fantastic forms of folk dance in the world. Its representative movement – hair swinging – encapsulates this form of traditional folk dance with charm and spirit.
The majority of Wa people still live in areas of southern China, such as Changyuan(沧源), Ximeng(西盟) and Menglian(孟连) in Yunnan province(云南省). Numerous high mountains and broad rivers have isolated many Wa communities from the developing modern world for a long period of time. Due to this geographic confinement, many communities have managed to maintain their unique traditional lifestyles, customs and values.
Many Wa people believe in a kind of natural worship and animism and regard natural phenomena as the actions of gods or spirits. This has led to religious celebrations and activities in which spells are combined with specific dancing, singing and a holy instrument (a specific kind of wooden drum).
In the last month of every lunar year, as well as the Keri month (格瑞月) of Wa year, Wa people would hold an important sacrificing ritual, called Kelukeluo or Kaoguoro (拉木祭祀) as pronounced in the Wa dialect. the Hair Swinging Dance is one of the most exciting parts of this ceremony.
When women start to swing their long black hair while dancing and the wood drum is beaten out in an energetic rhythm, the sacrificing ritual would reach its climax. The women’s dancing hair is said to appear like a fierce wind, a raging fire or even a cascading waterfall. The dancers’ movements not only show their respect to nature and God, but also their vigorous enthusiasm and optimism.
“These black waves of hair indicate the beauty of these girls, as well as their bold and generous characters.”
Originally the Hair Swinging Dance was a kind of self-entertaining dance, but it gradually became a popular form of dance that gained popularity across the whole of China and even across the world. You may well find that you gain a unique insight into the values of Chinese communities whilst watching or practicing this kind of folk dance.
I am very delighted to introduce you to this attractive folk dance, through both my text description here and through my movement pieces. When I perform or practice the Hair Swinging Dance, my strongest feeling is one of concentration and disconnection with the world. Actually I am not able to think about anything else; I can only concentrate on myself, both physically and mentally.
I believe the reason for this is that whilst I am dancing, I shake my head as hard as I can, which weakens the function of my other senses and leads me to forget everything apart from the dance itself.
From my perspective, due to the constant hair swinging and head shaking, this form of dance can help to improve mental and emotional wellbeing as the strong sense of self-concentration needed can help to rid oneself of feelings of annoyance and insignificance in daily life and bring a sense of escape.
Such mediation through dance leads the dancer close to gods and spirits.
Yiyun Li is a dance teacher at Goldsmiths Confucius Institute. She mainly oversees the teaching of Asian Contemporary Dance and Chinese folk dance courses in the departmental as well as taking a key role in the departments Outreach for Schools programme. Her research specialisms include Movement Communication, cultural comparisons of folk dances and Chinese dance education.