The traditional Chinese fan dance has been a part of China's heritage for over two thousand years. Considered to be an ancient form of folk dance, the fan dance serves various purposes and is highly regarded by the Chinese.
Purposes of the Chinese Fan Dance
The Chinese fan dance plays a few different roles in China. First, it is used to help pass down stories and traditions of Chinese culture. Both tourists and younger Chinese generations learn classic tales and lore of China's past through the fan dance. This is why you can often see fan dancers at festivals, theater performances, and other exhibition-style events where the performers are able to promote their rich roots in history.
Fan dancing also serves as entertainment. Fans are used as props, complimenting brightly-colored costumes for an eye-catching spectacle of movement. Finally, Chinese fan dancing serves as exercise, as well as an exercise in discipline for its participants. Like many other forms of dance, the choreography that comes along with fan dancing requires physical fitness and the ability to memorize routines. Being responsible enough to attend regular rehearsals and performances is another form of personal discipline. This can be a way for young Chinese dancers to enrich their bodies and minds with an activity that means something to them both personally and culturally.
The origins of the fan dance are rooted in the Han Dynasty, which dates to around 200 AD. The Han Dynasty was the first to value and preserve the arts, which is probably why fan dancing endures today. Its unique placement in history allowed it to be passed on to generations, causing it to be more of a familial tradition than a studio-focused style of dance.
Historically, the fan dance has been categorized in two ways - civilian and military. Most who take in a fan dance performance are viewing the civilian form. This is detailed and graceful, resembling ballet in its pace and form, using fans and other props such as feathered banners to accentuate the beauty of the dancing. The military-based fan dancing doesn't even use fans at all - but rather has taken its cue from civilian fan dancing by using coordinated group movements for military exercises and exhibitions. You will sometimes see military members on display, using their weapons similarly to how civilian performers use fans, simulating the same movements in a more rigid and authoritative style.
Fan dance costumes can vary from traditional Chinese clothing to colorful lyrical dresses you can find at any dance supply house. Since fan dancing is used for storytelling, the costumes are often chosen as part of the tale being told. Some dancers may be dressed in individual costumes to help the story along, but in most instances fan dancers are dressed similarly in a matching costume.
The fans are used to accentuate the dancers' movements and costumes. Fans cause limbs to look longer and more delicate; in addition, the fans bring more attention to the choreography, and add a beauty that cannot be duplicated by more modernized forms of dance. The fans can also be used as proprs to depict everything from a food basket to a buried treasure. They are also rarely simple paper fans, rather they are embellished with feathers, jewels, bamboo or other native décor to add to the overall effect.
Learning Chinese Dances
Many Chinese fan dancers learn the craft from older friends or family members, or as part of their school curriculum. There are also fan dancing groups that perform for tourists, and these take a more formal studio approach to their productions. As a westerner, you can learn fan dancing by visiting a local festival or other event where fan dancers are on the entertainment roster. They often offer a free lesson for the audience, and anyone who wishes to try out a few steps may do so. You can also sometimes find fan dancing teams and lessons in the United States, especially in cities that have a Chinatown district or other cultural heritage center where Chinese culture is celebrated. Regardless of how you learn fan dancing, the artistry of the practice is sure to make an impression.