The dragon dance is a form of traditional dance and performance in Chinese culture. Like the lion dance, it is most often seen in festive celebrations.

The dragon dance is performed by a team of experienced dancers who manipulate a long flexible figure of a dragon using poles positioned at regular intervals along the length of the dragon. The dance team simulates the imagined movements of this river spirit in a sinuous, undulating manner.

The dragon dance is often performed during Chinese New Year. Chinese dragons are a symbol of China’s culture, and they are believed to bring good luck to people, therefore the longer the dragon is in the dance, the more luck it will bring to the community.

The dragons are believed to possess qualities that include great power, dignity, fertility, wisdom, and auspiciousness. The appearance of a dragon is both fearsome and bold but it has a benevolent disposition, and it was an emblem to represent imperial authority.

The movements in a performance traditionally symbolize historical roles of dragons demonstrating power and dignity.

During the Han Dynasty, different forms of the dragon dance were described in ancient texts.

Rain dance performed at times of drought may involve the use of figures of the dragon as Chinese dragon was associated with rain in ancient China, for example, the dragon Yinglong was considered a rain deity, and the Shenlong had the power to determine how much wind and rain to bring.

According to the Han Dynasty text Luxuriant Dew of the Spring and Autumn Annals by Dong Zhongshu, as part of a ritual to appeal for rain, clay figures of the dragons were made and children or adults may then perform a dance. The number of dragons, their length, and color, as well as the performers,  may vary according to the time of year.

Other dances involving dragons may be found in a popular form of entertainment during the Han Dynasty, the baixi variety shows, where performers called “mime people” dressed up as various creatures such as beasts, fish and dragons.

In his Lyric Essay on Western Capital Zhang Heng recorded various performances such as performers who dressed as a green dragon playing the flute, and a fish-dragon act where fish transformed into a dragon.

A version of the fish-dragon dance called “fish-dragon extending” was also performed at the Han court to entertain foreign guests – in this dance, a mythical beast of Shenli transforms into flounder, then to a dragon.

These ancient dances, however, do not resemble modern Dragon Dance in their descriptions, and depictions of dragon dance in Han Dynasty stone relief engravings suggest that the props used may also be cumbersome, unlike modern Dragon Dance where light-weight dragons are manipulated by performers.

The dragon acts of the Han Dynasty were also mentioned in the Tang and Song Dynasty.

Figures similar to the dragon lantern used during Lantern Festival were described in the Song Dynasty work Dreams of Splendor of the Eastern Capital, where figures of dragon mounted for display were constructed out of grass and cloth and inside which numerous candle lights may be placed.

Such dragon lanterns may also be carried and paraded by performers in the street during the Lantern Festival at nighttime.

A wide variety of dragon dances have developed in various regions in China, for example, the Fenghua Cloth Dragon from Zhejiang was made with bamboo frame and covered with cloth, and is said to have been developed in the 1200s.

A form of dragon dance from Tongliang County, which originated as snake totem worship, began during the Ming Dynasty and became popular in the Qing Dynasty.

In the modern era, the government of the People’s Republic of China adopted and promoted various traditional folk dances, which contributed to the popularity of the current form of the dragon dance now found widely in China as well as Chinese communities around the world.

Aside from the popular form of dragon dance, other regional dragon dances include one from Zhanjiang, Guangdong province whereby the body of the dragon is formed entirely of a human chain of dozens to hundreds of performers, and in Pujiang County, Zhejiang Province, the body of the dragon is formed using wooden stools. The number of different dragon dances has been put at over 700.

Dragon structure

The dragon is a long serpentine body formed of a number of sections on poles, with a dragon head and a tail.

The dragon is assembled by joining the series of hoops on each section and attaching the ornamental head and tailpieces at the ends.

Traditionally, dragons were constructed of wood, with bamboo hoops on the inside and covered with a rich fabric, however, in the modern era lighter materials such as aluminum and plastics have replaced the wood and heavy material.

Dragons can range in length from as little as 2 metres (10 ft) operated by two people for small displays, around 25 to 35 metres (80 to 110 ft) for the more acrobatic models, and up to 50 to 70 metres (160 to 230 ft) for the larger parade and ceremonial styles.

The size and length of a dragon depend on the human power available, financial power, materials, skills and size of the field. A small organization cannot afford to run a very long dragon because it requires considerable human power, great expenses, and special skills which are difficult to manage.

The dragon dance is performed by a skilled team whose job is to bring the motionless body to life.

The correct combination and proper timing of the different parts of the dragon are very important to make a successful dance. Any mistakes made by even some of the performers would spoil the whole performance.

To be very successful in the dance, the head of the Dragon must be able to coordinate with the body movement to match the timing of the drum.

For larger ceremonial and parade style dragons, the head can weigh as much as 12 katis (14.4 kg, almost 32 lb). The dragon tail also has an important role to play as it will have to keep in time with head movements.

The fifth section is considered to be the middle portion and the performers must be very alert as the body movements change from time to time. The dragon is often led by a person holding a spherical object representing a pearl.

The patterns of the dragon dance are choreographed according to the skills and experiences acquired by the performers. Some of the patterns of the dragon dance are “Cloud Cave“, “Whirlpool“, T’ai chi pattern, “threading the money“, “looking for pearl“, and “dragon encircling the pillar“. The movement “dragon chasing the pearl” shows that the dragon is continually in the pursuit of wisdom.

The dragon moves in a wave-like pattern achieved by the co-ordinated swinging of each section in succession. Whilst this swinging constitutes the basic movement of the dragon, executing more complex formations is only limited by a team’s creativity.

The patterns and tricks that are performed generally involve running into spiraled formations to make the dragon body turn and twist on itself. This causes performers to jump over or through the dragon’s body sections, adding to the visual display.

Other advanced maneuvers include various corkscrew-like rotating tricks and more acrobatic moves where the performers stand on each other’s legs and shoulders to increase the height of the dragon’s movements.

Performing in a dragon dance team incorporates several elements and skills; it is something of a cross-over activity, combining the training and mentality of a sports team with the stagecraft and flair of a performing arts troupe.

The basic skills are simple to learn, however, to become a competent performer takes dedicated training until movements become second nature and complex formations can be achieved – which rely not only on the skill of the individual member but on concentration by the team as a whole to move in co-operation.

A double dragon dance, rarely seen in Western exhibitions, involves two troupes of dancers intertwining the dragons.

Even rarer are danced with the full array of nine dragons since nine is a “perfect” number. Such dances involve a large number of participants from various organizations and are often only possible under the auspices of a regional or national government.

Outside China

Unlike the lion dance in many Asian countries where there are numerous native versions of the dance, the dragon dance is found in other countries primarily among overseas Chinese communities.

In Japan, the dragon dance ( Ja Odori – also referred to as “Snake Dance”) is one of the main attractions in the Nagasaki Kunchi festival. The dance was originally performed by Chinese residents who settled in Nagasaki, the only port said to be open for foreign trade in Japan during the Edo period.

The dragon dance has also been adapted for other local festivities by the Japanese – a golden dragon dance (Kinryū no Mai) has been performed at the Sensō-Ji in Tokyo since 1958.

There is however a form that is unique to Japan – the Orochi (a great serpent or Japanese dragon) which may be found in a kagura performance.

In Vietnam, the dragon dance may be performed during Tết, the Vietnamese New Year.

In Indonesia, the dragon dance called Liang Liong.

In literature

  • Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poem “The Great Chinese Dragon”, published in his 1961 anthology Starting from San Francisco, was inspired by the dragon dance. Gregory Stephenson says the dragon “… represents ‘the force and mystery of life,’ the true sight that ‘sees the spiritual everywhere translucent in the material world'”.
  • Earl Lovelace’s 1979 novel The Dragon Can’t Dance uses the theme of the Carnival dance to explore social change and history in the West Indies. Arthur Ransome incorporates dragon dances in his children’s book Missee Lee (1941), part of the Swallows and Amazons series, which is set in 1930s China.

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