The dragon dance and the lion dance were indispensable to Chinese festivals since ancient times. With the spread of Chinese people and culture all over the world, the dragon dance has been brought to every corner of overseas Chinese gathering areas, such as Southeast Asia, Europe, America, Australia, and New Zealand, and has become a symbol of Chinese culture.
The dragon costume used for a dragon dance is made of materials like grass, bamboo, paper, and cloth.
Odd numbers of the dragon’s joints are regarded as auspicious, so people often make a 9-jointed dragon, an 11-jointed dragon, a 13-jointed dragon, or even a 29-jointed dragon. Dragons made of more than 15 joints are too heavy to dance, and are mainly used for display, so this kind of dragon puts more weight on decoration and boasts a high value of craft technology.
The dragon body is woven in a round shape of thin bamboo strips, segment-by-segment, and covered with a huge red cloth with dragon scales drawn on it. The whole dragon can be about 30 meters in length — and people hold rods every 1.5 to 1.8 meters to raise the dragon up.
Another kind of dragon which has been specially made, called the 'Fire Dragon', is very eye catching at night because it is made in a particular way. Thin bamboo strips are weaved into several cylinders as the framework of the dragon, covered with beautiful transparent cloth or paper as the skin of the dragon, and candles or oil lamps are suspended inside the dragon. Therefore, at night, it looks like a dragon full of fire.
The dragon body used for the dragon dance is usually placed in a local 'Dragon King Temple', and only on the day of the dragon dance can it be taken out, accompanied by local people holding banners and flags, pounding on drums, and blowing trumpets. People connect the head and the tail of the dragon to its body, and hold a ceremony of "eye-pointing".
A person holding a rod with a big ball at the top leads the dragon during the dance. The ball is moved left and right, back and forth, up and down, and the dragon follows the ball, its body moving in waves appears to be dancing.
The day of the dragon dance is such a significant and popular festival that the dragon is welcome everywhere it goes. Sometimes the team conducting the dragon dance can receive banquets up to five or six times, which are called "dragon exchanging wine".
After the dance, the dragon's head and tail will be burnt, and the body is returned to the temple, where it will be kept for use the next year.
The southern dragon dance originates from south of the Yangtze River.
The body of the southern dragon is paid great attention, and it’s heavier than northern dragons'. The southern style emphasizes momentum and strength, so it does not have agile movements, but has a grand look.
Usually 10 people are needed to carry a dancing 9-meter southern dragon. Since the southern dragon dance does not focus on flexible movements, the dragon can be made 20 meters long, 100 meters, or even 1,000 meters long. The size of the dragon head is made according to its length.
The southern dragon is conventionally made. The dragon head is made of bamboo and paper, and the body’s skin is made of cloth with dragon scales drawn on it. To save time, people sometimes design the decorative pattern of the dragon by computer.
The common moves of a southern dragon dance are circling, making 'S' shapes, and lifting the dragon’s head above the dragon’s body.
This style was developed north of the Yangtze River.
The head of a northern dragon is smaller than that of a southern dragon, and is made of paper or plant fibers, which give it a considerable weight reduction. Its shape is designed to meet the needs of flexible dancing moves, such as rolling the head to the left and right. Different from the southern dragon, which focuses on strength, the north dragon emphasizes more on flexibility in its dancing moves.
The north dragon often dances in a dark environment, so it is made with fluorescent materials. At present, the north dragon is more popular worldwide. Competitions and performances are frequently held in China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Singapore.
The origin of the dragon dance can be dated back to the Han Dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD). It was then used in a ceremony for worshiping ancestors and praying for rain, and it gradually developed into an entertainment activity. In the Tang Dynasty (618–907) and the Song Dynasty (960–1279) it had become a common ceremonial activity in festivals like Chinese New Year.
A dragon dance can usually be seen at the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) and the Lantern Festival. Nowadays, you can hardly see dragon dances in many cities, but you can visit towns and larger villages to enjoy the show.