Enter the Year of the Dragon
The dancers and history behind Scotland's biggest Chinese New Year celebrations
There is a nervous tension in the dance studio. Adrenaline is running high. After six solid months of rehearsals, it is almost show time.
In a matter of days, it won’t be just the blank walls of the rehearsal room and the familiar face of the dance teacher that witnesses every step, gesture and exquisite turn of the hand, it will be the mass audience of a national festival performance.
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“The question is, are we ready? Everything is… I wouldn't say 100%... but 99%. I start to worry if everything is not perfect. We will be ready.” There is a quiet confidence to Jessica Yang that speaks of a troupe leader with full trust in her dancers and their collective level of preparation. She has, after all, been here before.
Jessica was one of the founders of the Edinburgh Chinese Arts Association ten years ago and has seen it grow into creative powerhouse behind Scotland’s national celebrations of the lunar new year.
Such pre-performance anxieties are not unusual. In fact, at this time of year, similar scenes are being played out in dance studios and community halls across China and in Chinese communities around the world.
These particular rehearsals are taking place in the Dance for All studio in St Stephen Street, Stockbridge. The Chinese arts association moved here a few years ago after outgrowing their former base in Polwarth.
Crowds flock to the Mound
On Sunday, the dancers will take centrestage on the Mound for one of the most colourful and best-loved events in Edinburgh’s cultural calendar.
The free performance outside the National Gallery is central to Scotland’s Chinese New Year celebrations, showcasing artistic traditions dating back more than 2000 years. A cast of up to 80 dancers, musicians and volunteers, aged six to 60, will attract large crowds encompassing everyone from aficionados to curious on-lookers. They will present an authentic programme of traditional Chinese arts including the ancient lion and dragon dances, and beautiful long fan dances, while the association’s celebrated waist drummers and Chinese folk musicians will perform.
The celebrations at noon-3pm are family-friendly and designed to bridge cultural divides, with elements of Scottish ceilidh, traditional Chinese New Year red letter games, Hanfu stories and even the promise of audience participation.
Falling in love with dance
As a young girl growing up in the south-west of China, Jessica was mesmerised by the beauty of classical dance.
She loved the grace and poise of the dancers, the precision of their movements in the hand dances and the swirling patterns they carved in the air for the stunning long fan dance. She enrolled in classes and it became her passion.
“I always loved dancing. When I was little, I dreamed of being a star. You know what it is like when you are young, I wanted to be a professional dancer, but my parents wanted me to have a profession so dance became my hobby.”
Jessica grew up in the Sichuan province - “near the home of the pandas,” she says with a smile, knowing it is cultural reference that will be shared - before moving to Beijing and studying music at university. She moved to Scotland to study - a post-graduate degree in tourism management at Napier University - and settled in Edinburgh, which has one of the largest Chinese communities in the UK.
She is one of more than 8,000 Edinburgh residents who were born in China or Hong Kong - that is more than live in any other UK city apart from London, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow. The number in Edinburgh almost doubles when you include visiting students (an estimated 6,000) and slowly returning tourists.
Jessica now passes on the traditional skills she first learned as a schoolgirl in Sichuan to a new generation of Chinese Scots.
Turning the town red
“Red. Red is very important for the Chinese New Year,” says a beaming Jessica, who divides her time between the arts association and running a tourism business which organises cultural exchanges. “Everything must be red.” Just like Hogmanay, tradition dictates much of what happens at the New Year celebrations, from red dresses and lanterns - symbolising good fortune and joy - to the exchange of red envelopes, which usually in Chinese homes contain gifts of money for the children. It is a time of coming together for families and the wider community.
The traditions are central to the celebrations on the Mound. Every effort is made to ensure that what is on show is authentic, from the beautifully crafted costumes exported from China to the well-drilled dance moves and skilled musicianship.
As the coming year is the Year of the Dragon, the dragon dance will be central to this year’s performance and is expected to be one of the audience highlights. “This year we have the waist drummers, which should be one of the high spots, and the long silk fan dance - a fan with silk nearly two metres long, and it looks fantastic.”
Pride and identity
The celebrations on the Mound are perhaps the most visible display of Chinese culture in the Capital and the arts association and the wider Chinese community take great pride in the event and the high quality performances.
Having grown over the years, Edinburgh’s celebrations now attract interest from across Scotland and the north of England. One dancer used to travel weekly from Durham to join rehearsals and performers from across the UK get in touch asking to take part.
The cast are a mixture of professional artists and amateur performers who have days jobs - “working for the banks, universities, other companies” - but dedicate huge amounts of their time to their art.
The fact that much of the funding for the celebrations has been raised from within the Chinese business community is a source of pride, although there is disappointment that the association and its key role in Scotland’s national celebration are yet to recognised with financial support from Creative Scotland.
In the meantime, the association’s work has received international recognition, with China’s leading dance institution the Beijing Dance Academy authorising Jessica to run the only Chinese dance exam centre in the UK.
‘You are different and that is your identity’
Besides the sheer joy of performing dance and music, the performance of traditional Chinese arts is also way for some an important way of expressing their national identity.
Asked about how common experiences of racism are for the Chinese community in Edinburgh, Jessica says simply that it is a fact of life, “especially for the students”. “You just have to face it and stand up for yourself when people don't respect you. That's what I believe.”
The Chinese arts performances - and the conversations they often spark with audience members eager to learn more about the cultural heritage - help to break down barriers and build greater understanding and respect, she believes. “When people understand more they have a different view.”
In a city which prides itself on being a home to the arts, what better way you might ask to build greater cross-cultural understanding than through music and dance?
“Chinese dance is so beautiful, and it's unique. Every nation has its unique culture, otherwise you don't have identity. I love it, and I want to keep it and develop it,” says Jessica.
“When you are young you never think about these things, but when you grow up you do think more deeply about your identity. You are in a different countries, so where's your identity? You are different and that's your identity.
“You should show your identity and your unique culture and you should be proud.”
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