I grew up in a traditional Mennonite community where dancing was frowned upon. It was one of the three sins along with drinking and smoking that just might land a person in hell. So it took me a couple days before I was willing to take advantage of the many opportunities I had to dance on my trip to Yunnan province in China. Yunnan is home to at least a dozen different Chinese minority groups. Each has its own distinctive music and dance traditions. These minority groups have not always had a chance in the past to share their unique cultures with the rest of their countrymen and women. Now an ever growing Chinese middle class have the financial ability and political freedom to travel across their great nation and experience first hand its rich and varied cultural heritage.
Mao Zedong encouraged cultural homogenization during his reign. He forced everyone, for example to wear the Communist garb, the blue peasant hat and jacket. Now that China is leaning towards more independence for individuals, minority groups can express their unique identities both in the way they dress and the way they celebrate their artistic culture.
Yunnan’s minority groups include the Yi, Naxi, Bai, Miao, Tibetan and Han people. We toured the various villages where they make their homes and in some of these communities the women invited visitors to try their hand at local dance routines.
I had my most incredible dance experience in the city of Shangri-La, site of James Hilton’s novel Lost Horizon. Many different cultural groups live in Shangri-La and one evening they held a dance altogether in the village square. I wrote this poem to describe that night.
Dancing in Shangri-La
Replete from a supper of yak soup, yak cheese and yak butter tea
I follow the Tibetan music to the village square at dusk
Light rain falling, red lanterns illuminating
The massive wooden homes built from mountain timbers
Perhaps a hundred people form a circle
Bai women wearing bright pink, fur trimmed head pieces
Naxi children with blue and white aprons
Tibetan yak herders sporting cowboy hats
Miao mothers carrying their babies in richly embroidered slings
Grey -haired men in blue hats and jackets, revolution remnants
Yi ladies with ruddy complexions
Chinese vacationers from Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong- every corner of this vast nation
All holding hands and moving gracefully to the music
Performing a traditional ritual
Arms circling high in the air
Waists bending low to the ground
Feet stepping, crossing on the cobblestones
I watch in wonder, a misty-eyed, white-faced foreigner
Marveling how in this place where Hilton set his Lost Horizon
The people of China can celebrate their ethnic diversity and rich cultural heritage
During years of war, revolution and oppression it was impossible for them to even dream of such a gathering
But now Chinese citizens from near and far are free to come together and dance hand in hand
The shy, inviting smile of a wrinkle-faced woman draws me into the circle
Bumbling, western outsider
I am included and patiently taught until I too can follow the rhythm and pattern of their ancient dance.
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