Elephant-Foot Drum Dance of the Dai People
The elephant-foot drum dance is one of the most popular and representative traditional dances of the Dai people, one of China’s 56 ethnic groups. Performing the dance requires a high level of skills and can involve one or two individuals, or a group of people. This form of dance was originally intended to ward off evil spirits and usher in a good year. In addition to the Dai people, it is also popular among other ethnic groups in China such as Deang, Jingpo, Achang to name a few. It was listed as a national intangible cultural heritage item in 2008.
The elephant-foot drum is an iconic Dai percussion instrument named after its elephant-foot-shaped design, and has served an important role in the folk culture of the Dai people. Many legends have been passed down about the origin of the drum: one tale says that it was made by a couple attempting to imitate the sound of a mango falling into water, while another ancient tale tells how it was made by a group of people with a piece of dragon skin to celebrate their courageous killing of the evil creature that was responsible for a flood. Despite the folk stories, the earliest historical record of the drum dates back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).
Elephant-foot drums are generally made of Chinese toon trees. The wood is first soaked in a pond for at least one year to make it crack-resistant and moth-proof and help it produce a mellower tone that will not easily fade. After that, the wood is drilled, polished, colored, and finally covered with a drum skin. The outside of the drum is usually carved with decorations of flowers, elephants and other motifs.
Traditionally the elephant-foot drum dance is a masculine dance performed by men, as its movements evolved from traditional Dai martial arts. For this reason, the requirement for anyone desiring to learn this art is to first learn martial arts, otherwise their physical ability and flexibility in the dance moves will not meet the standard. The dance is quite physically taxing for beginners as it requires them to be able to carry a drum, have good body coordination, and keep up with the rhythm.
During a performance, dancers carry a drum on their left shoulders with the drum head in the front and the drum tail in the back. Dancers’ right hands beat the drum with their fists, palms, and fingers, while the left hand complements the action, and sometimes elbows, knees, heels, and toes are also involved. Because the drum has a long structure, dance moves are mostly performed by the dancer’s legs, including such movements as squatting, lifting one leg, kicking, and sometimes a slightly lunging from side to side. According to the length of the drum, the dance has been categorized into three types: long, medium, and small elephant-foot drum dances.
The Dai elephant-foot drum dance is a means for the Dai people to express their joy as well as a vivid reflection of their village culture. Whether strictly following their traditions or creating new forms of cultural expression, generations of Dai elephant-foot drum dancers continue to pass on this traditional art in their own way.