The highlight of a Chinese New Year parade is the Dragon Dance. A group of martial artists dance while carrying a dragon “puppet” on long bamboo poles. Their dance imitates the snake-like movements of the River Dragons of China. Marching with them are usually musicians playing drums and gongs. Meanwhile, the onlookers throw fire crackers at the feet of the dancers making this into a more festive occasion.
Many Westerners may not know that the Dragon Dance is not done for entertainment purposes. Instead it is a sacred ritual to bring happiness and prosperity to everyone, both the dancers and onlookers. By honoring the dragons with their dancing, the Chinese hope that they will, in turn, reward them with good luck and fortune.
Started during the Han Dynasty, the Dragon Dance was done to ensure a good harvest. Dragons, according to the Chinese, are the masters of water and the weather. Since the dragons brought the rain, the Chinese reasoned that the dragons would be pleased with their dances. They also hoped that the dragons would stop sickness in the land.
The dragon of the dance is a “puppet” separated into at least nine sections, with a head and a tail. (Longer dragons bring more luck to the people. One dragon at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games was 100 meters (about 50 feet) in length, with fifty people holding the poles.) Wearing the head, the lead dancer starts each movement. Leaping, twisting, dipping and crouching, he copies the sinuous actions of the dragons. The people who are holding the body move with him. Meanwhile, the person with the tail of the dragon keeps time. Many hours of practice are needed to coordinate the movements and to build the stamina of the participants. Therefore many dragon dancers are members of martial art schools (which encourage both).