The folk dances of the 840,000 Dai nationality enjoy not only wide popularity but great diversity. Most of them imitate the movements of subtropical creatures. The percussion instruments used for accompaniment include elephant-foot drums, gongs, and bronze drums. Different dances have their one special drumbeat and drum vocabulary. The drumbeat is not only the tempo of a dance but a kind of language for people to communicate their feelings.
The dances described below are the most popular in Dai areas. They include Peacock Dance, Elephant-Foot-Drum Dance, Gabanguang Dance, Double Drumhead Dance, Fish Dance, Roc Dance, Egret Dance, Garland Dance, Knife Dance, Rod, Stick and Boxing Dances, Gaduo Dance, Yilahe Dance, Butter-fly Dance, Bamboo-Hat Dance, Candle Dance, Demon Dance and Cock Dance.
Known as Galuoyong, Fanluoyong or Gananyong, Peacock Dance is the best loved dance of the Dais.
To the Dais the peacock is a symbol of good luck, happiness, beauty and honesty. At festivals Peacock Dance is performed by amateur dancers. The dance is based on folk and fairy tales and stories from Buddhist scriptures, or it imitates the movements of peacocks.
Peacock Dance is usually performed by one, two or three people. At the climax of the dance spectators shout, "Wu, wu," and "Shui, shui," with great enthusiasm. The dance has certain fixed elements, such as imitating a peacock flying from its nest, watching with sharp, expressive eyes, strolling naturally, looking for and drinking water, playing in the water, bathing, shaking and sunning its wings, spreading its tail to vie with other creatures, and flying freely in the sky.
The movements of the dance are quite diverse. The most common hand gestures include tucking the thumb under with the four fingers extended close together, "peacock hand" (the thumb slightly tucked, the index finger bent and the other three fingers spread in a fan shape), and the "eye" gesture (the thumb and index finger close to each other and the other three fingers spread in a fan shape to imitate the shape of an eye). The dance steps include tiptoeing and undulating steps (kicking one foot backward toward the hip, stepping back, then stretching and bending the other leg in rhythm).
Peacock Dance takes three forms: peacock, peahen and peachick. The peacock dance is the most popular among the Dais. In performing the dance, the leg is bent and stretched forcefully and the body twists sharply.
The peahen dance is mostly performed by men. the knee is slowly raised and lowered. The dance is graceful and refined, usually coupling a thrust of the chest and a turn of the shoulder to denote subtlety. The drumbeat is slow and light.
The peachick dance features quick shivering movements, steps in a half squat and a light shrug of the shoulders. The drumbeat is quick and deft.
The word for "drum" is guang and for "dance" ga in the Dai language. The drums in Dai regions are generally of two kinds: drums with a single head, or guanglaleng in the Dai language; and double-headed drums, or guangshuangla. As the single-head drum look very much like elephants' legs, they are called elephant-foot drums.
Called Gaguang or Fanguang in the local Dai language, it is the most popular and most typical male dance in areas inhabited by Dais. After transplanting rice seedlings or reaping a bumper harvest, male Dais beat elephant-foot drums and dance in celebration.
Dais are very fond of elephants, which to them are the symbol of diligence, bravery and sacredness.
The dancer carries the elephant-foot drum over his left shoulder and beats it mainly with his right hand; his left hand helps only in coordination. He beats the drum with fist, palm and fingers. Sometimes he also uses his elbow, knee, heel and toes.
Elephant-Foot-Drum Dance is agile, rugged and free. The knees bend in close coordination with the drumbeat. The versatile steps include "stepping forward/back on tiptoe, half squatting," "marking time in full squat, " "stepping with splayed legs, half squatting," and "standing on one leg while kicking, raising and swinging the other leg." There are also all kinds of jumps, such as jumping on one leg, tapping and jumping, kicking and jumping, and broad jump.
Large, medium-size and small elephant-foot drums are used.
Gabanguang, or Gaguang, means a round dance with the drum in the centre. It is the most popular group dance among the Dais. Dozens of people or several hundred can take part, dancing in circles clockwise. On festive days people often dance all night.
The dance is simple and lively and features the striking characteristic of quivering of the women's knees. Hand and foot movements take the same side. The main steps include one full and two half steps, "undulating" steps, half-foot and forward lunge. The movement of the hand is simple and usually follows the natural turn of the arm.
Known as Guangbang, Guangliang, Guangshuangla, Guanghong, or Guangmengyang in the Dai language, this dance is popular in Yingjiang and Ruili counties of Dehong Dai and Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture, in areas of Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture. It is one of the most ancient drum dances of the Dai nationality. The large and small ends of the drum are covered with animal skin. A smaller drum, half a metre long, is hung horizontally on the dancer, who beats it with the palm of his right hand and a bamboo stick in his left hand. The movements are very spectacular, featuring deep squats and sharp twists of the body. The large double-headed drum is one metre long and 67 cm in diameter. It is carried by two people on a bamboo pole. The dancer beats the drum with drumsticks while waving his hand and turning, pulling back one leg, kneeling and squatting. People follow the main dancer with gongs and cymbals. Carrying flowers or handkerchiefs, they sing and dance in a circle.
It is said to have been created by the Dais when they first discovered fish and learned fishing.
Fish Dance requires one or two performers with fish-shaped props fastened to their waists.
The dance is softer, more refined, more agile and livelier than other Dai folk dances. It mainly uses a natural and delicate flow of undulating steps, steady short, quick steps on half foot with bent knees, and small leaps. For instance the performer often uses short, quick steps with bent knee on full or half foot without undulation, swaying the hands or the upper part of the body, to express a fish swimming in placid water. Light leaps and turns express most vividly a fish playing merrily in the water or swimming in torrents.
The most typical hand gesture in Fish Dance is one hand on top of the other with the thumbs outstretched. Other movements include palms downward, wrists on the waist, circling from inside out with both hands, or waving both arms behind the back.
Legend has it that after the God of Rain left, the areas inhabited by the Dain suffered serious drought and crops perished. Forsaking its mate during hatching, a roc fought a life-and-death battle with the God of Rain and forced the god to return. It rained, but the roc's mate and babies died of hunger. To show their gratitude to the roc, the Dais created the Roc Dance, which has been handed down to this day.
The dance is vigorous, strong and unrestrained, featuring broad and forceful movements. It mainly depicts the undaunted roc's fight with the God of Rain. Quick changes contrast with long poses and sharp twists of the body. For example, the performer enters with a broad leap, followed by a long pose to express the roc's swift dive from the sky. The fingers spread out to form a claw, greatly enhancing the strength of the movements.
Only one or two people perform the dance.
This is a group dance performed by young people at weddings and festivals.
Most of Egret Dance is in couples. The performers enter in two lines from each side. They come together after meeting or form four lines or two circles. Usually the pattern changes at the command of a leader.
The movements are simple and graceful. The rhythm is different from that of other Dai folk dances. On the weak beat the dancer bends his knees swiftly and raises one leg nimbly. On the strong beat he straightens his knees and touches the ground with full foot lightly, imitating an egret walking. Movements also include clapping the hands in front of the chest and sticking the chest out.
Garland Dance is a group dance for young people.
The garland is made of colourful flowers tied to a bamboo frame. The performer holds the garland at both ends and manipulates it while dancing, swinging it right and left or to the back, or changing its shape to form different patterns. At the climax of the dance the slow tempo quickens to an allegro and the steps become quick with little jumps.
KNIFE DANCE AND ROD, STICK AND BOXING DANCES
In picturesque rural areas a Dai man usually carries a sharp knife of fine craftsmanship as a symbol of his bravery. The Dai Knife Dance is forceful and vigorous. The steps, rarely found in other Dai folk dances, include stamping with the feet far apart, kicking, tapping, leaping or sliding in deep squatting position. the bending and stretching of the knees is striking. The dance is performed with a single knife, double knives, short knife or "long" knife (similar to a sword). This dance is divided into local, hinterland and Burmese schools. Each school follows strictly its own special conventions and movements. One to more than ten people may take part. The dance is performed either without musical accompaniment or to the beat of elephant-foot drums.
Rod, stick and boxing dances, or martial arts dances, are similar to Knife Dance.
Duo is a mythical animal. It has a lion's head, a dog's mouth, deer antlers, a long neck and fine hair.
Gaduo Dance is performed with a prop that has a body 3.5 metres long and a neck 2.66 metres long, made of a bamboo tube 45 cm in diameter covered with cloth. Slips of white paper are pasted on it for feathers. The dance is usually performed by two people, who cooperate in imitating a duo. The one in front commands the neck with the help of a stick, waving it in a figure-eight pattern, while the person in back manipulates the tail, performing small leaps and jumps, falling and turning. The steps and drumbeats are similar to those in Peacock Dance.