Written by Emily Wilcox.

Most Americans would be hard-pressed to distinguish a waltz from a tango or a salsa from a jitterbug. However, in the People’s Republic of China, average citizens can easily identify and distinguish between Uyghur dance, Mongol dance, Tibetan dance, Korean dance, Dai dance, and so on. I know, because recently while attending a conference on Chinese literature, I performed each of these dances and asked audience members to call out the name of the nationality being performed. Without the aid of music, costumes, or stage props, after only a few iconic steps, the audience correctly labeled each dance. How did they know that moving my shoulders back and forth with hands on my hips meant Mongol, or stamping my feet on the ground while pressing my hips out to the side meant Dai? They knew because minority dance is a recognizable political discourse in the PRC, one that, from a young age, people are taught to decipher, enjoy, and even embody themselves in a variety of occasions. From student performances, to parades and celebrations, to music videos and entertainment television, minority dance is a ubiquitous part of the popular culture environment in China, as well as a stable feature of Chinese propaganda performance.

Conventionally, anthropologists and political scientists have viewed minority dance as part of a discursive regime of ethnic relations, in which the majority Han asserts its symbolic power over minority populations. Through lively and colorful dance shows, usually performed in unison and with a joyful atmosphere, minority dancers offer an image of a unified country, in which ethnic tension does not exist and all nationality groups live in harmony. Such a vision erases from popular discourse what are often much darker realities, such as structural inequality, racism and ethnic stereotypes, and the suppression of political activism in areas with large minority populations. Furthermore, when minority culture is represented in these dance forms, it is often simplified and essentialized, such that minority people appear reducible to a narrow set of songs, costumes, and dance movements. Because minority dance is most often used in state propaganda to promote such Han-centric views, both of the nation and of minorities themselves, the important roles that minorities themselves play in the creation of these forms is often overlooked. However, the question should also be asked: Who are the dancers who create and perform these minority dances, which form such a lasting component of PRC propaganda? In other words, what is the role of minorities in minority dance?

In fact, the first performers to widely popularize and represent minority dance in PRC propaganda were highly sophisticated minority dance artists. In October, 1950, China celebrated its first National Day with a month-long minority dance and music tour in Beijing, in which more than two hundred minority performers participated from all over China. Through media portrayals and extensive public performances of this tour, Chinese audiences gained their first exposure to minority dance. Among those they saw were two of the PRC’s first minority dance stars: Kangba’erhan康巴尔汗(1922-1994) a female Uyghur dancer from Kashgar who specialized in dances of Xinjiang, and Jia Zuoguang贾作光(1923- ), a male Manchu dancer from Shenyang who specialized in the dances of Inner Mongolia. Both of these dancers already had extensive training and international performance experience before they were recruited to serve the PRC state through their assistance in the creation of minority dance.

During the late 1930s, Kangba’erhan had been a soloist in the Uzbek Song and Dance Theater and then trained at the Moscow Music and Dance Academy, where she performed at the Kremlin alongside the famous Soviet ballerina Galina Ulanova. Jia had received his early dance training from Ishii Baku, known as the “father of Japanese modern dance,” and later he studied with the Japan-trained Wu Xiaobang, known as the “father of Chinese new dance.” In the summer of 1949, Jia had represented China abroad at the World Festival of Youth and Students in Budapest. As state-employed choreographers and dance artists, these and many other minority dancers left their personal imprints on the dance styles that came to represent entire ethnic groups in China. Thus, when women today perform the delicate hand gestures and rhythmic movements of female-style ‘Uyghur dance,’ they could also be said to be performing ‘the dances of Kangba’erhan.’ When men today perform the bravado swagger and thrusting arms of male-style ‘Mongol dance,’ they could also be said to be dancing ‘in the style of Jia Zuoguang.’

Numerous other minority dance artists followed in the wake of Kangba’erhan and Jia Zuoguang, also leaving their personal legacies in the minority dance forms performed in China today. Oumijiacan 欧米加参 (1928- ), a male Tibetan folk performer from Yunnan Province who was recruited to the Central Nationalities Song and Dance Ensemble in the early 1950s, popularized his personal style of Tibetan Reba dance, which by the late-1950s had already become a staple of PRC propaganda shows. Jin Ou 金欧 (1934- ), a male Miao dancer from Guizhou, popularized his own form of the Miao lusheng, or reed pipe, dance around the same time, and Siqintariha 斯琴塔日哈 (1932- ), a female Mongol dancer from Inner Mongolia, developed her own forms of the ‘cup and goblet dance’ during the early 1960s, which remain today among the most common forms of female Mongol dance performed in China. Even more recently, the female Bai dancer Yang Liping 杨丽萍 (1958- ), now one of the celebrity judges on China’s version of So You Think You Can Dance, and probably the single most famous dance artist in all of China today, created and popularized her own new styles of Dai peacock dance, which are now performed around China and the world.

Like other dance styles, minority dance in China is an artistic form that has been codified and transformed over the years through the efforts of individual dancers, in addition to being a constituent component of state propaganda. Although their names are usually forgotten in popular discourse, these dancers’ creative legacies remain, through the particular arc of an elbow, the rhythm of a turn, or the placement of a foot position. When we watch minority dance today, we are seeing not only the politicized images of minorities, but also the contributions of minority dance artists who have left their marks over the years.

Dr. Emily Wilcox is Assistant Professor of Modern Chinese Studies at the University of Michigan.  Image Credit: China Ethnic Song and Dance Ensemble. Caption: Celebrated Uyghur dance artist Yumiti (b. 1987) performs in the Opening Ceremonies of the Fourth Minorities Art Festival of China. June 11-12, 2012, Beijing.