Left Foot Dance of the Yi Posted on 22 Oct 04:01

The Yi people are one of the most diverse ethnic groups within China, spread out over three provinces and encompassing at least six mutually unintelligible language groups. The musical practices of the various Yi groups are equally diverse. If you follow the Tea Horse Youtube channel, you’ve already heard the music of the Sani people, a relatively small and isolated Yi sub-group from the Stone Forest region of Yunnan.

 Today we will shift focus to the Yi people of Chuxiong Prefecture. With a total Yi population of over one million, Chuxiong is the one of the largest concentrations of Yi, second only to the Liangshan region of southern Sichuan. As such, the Yi traditions of Chuxiong can be said to be somewhat more representative of the core Yi culture, even though the prefecture still encompasses a wide variety of local traditions.

 One of the best-known musical styles within Chuxiong is the Left Foot Dance of Mouding County. Its lively melodies and relatively easy to learn dance steps have helped to popularize it, particularly in the larger cities of Yunnan Province where it is not uncommon to see people of all ethnicities dancing in public squares to prerecorded versions of these traditional melodies. In Yunnan’s capital of Kunming there are enough transplants from Mouding County to support traditional public dances with live musical accompaniment. You can see one such musical gathering in the video below, taken at Green Lake Park in Kunming.



 In addition to the erhu 二胡 and jinghu 京胡, bowed instruments found throughout China, the Left Foot Dance makes use of one of the most characteristic Yi instruments: the xianzi 弦子 (if you don’t know how to pronounce Mandarin, try saying “shyen-zuh,” stress on the first syllable).

The Mouding xianzi is a short-necked octagonal lute strung with two double courses of nylon strings, tuned in 4ths or 5ths, colorfully decorated, with a dragon’s head adorning the headstock. The xianzi bears obvious resemblance to other Chinese instruments, most notably the yueqin. In fact, in Sichuan Province the yueqin and xianzi are essentially the same instrument. In Yunnan, however, the xianzi has evolved into numerous local variants, almost all of them colorful and fairly distinct from the standard Chinese yueqin. For this reason, I will use the term xianzi to refer to instruments that have a large number of features distinctive to Yunnan’s Yi ethnic communities, even though the terms yueqin and xianzi are sometimes used interchangeably. In addition to the dragon headstock and colorful designs, the xianzi often has a narrower neck and rosette sound holes absent on the yueqin. The xianzi from Mouding is easily recognized from its octagonal shape and bright, almost fluorescent, designs painted on a white background.

Mouding xianzi with the characteristic color-scheme, octagonal body, and dragon head headstock.

The typical yueqin found throughout China.

The xianzi is strummed with a pick. More advanced players will pick the melodies, but often the xianzi is simply used as accompaniment, with the open strings strummed on the downbeats. From a musical perspective, this makes the Left Foot Dance highly inclusive, as a beginning xianzi player is easily integrated into the circle without disrupting the flow of the melody, which is mostly carried by the bowed jinghu and erhu.

The Dance

Throughout Yi culture, music and dance are closely linked. In some areas, nearly every piece of music has specific dance steps that go with it. Within the Left Foot Dance tradition, this proliferation of dances is simplified greatly. Generally speaking, you only see two moves: a side step and a kick. Exactly where the kicks and steps fall is unique to each melody.

Below are two more videos of the Left Foot Dance (recorded on my cell phone, please excuse image and sound quality). By comparing the patterns of steps and kicks you’ll get an idea of how the dance varies from piece to piece.


 Tradition and Contemporary Cultural Relevance

The Left Foot Dance is a living tradition which continues to evolve. New arrangements are written (often for recorded electronic versions), and new instruments enter the tradition – note the kick drum and baritone xianzi in the first video. Even the colorful embroidered clothing worn by dancers is constantly altered by new trends – note the polyester bell-bottoms. Moreover, the tradition seems to remain a relevant part of Yi community life, despite the competition from modern entertainment that is a threat to so much traditional music and dance around the world. As you can see, the weekly dance circle seen in these videos is eagerly attended by young and old alike.

 The staying power of the Left Foot Dance is also attested to by its crossover into guangchang wu (广场舞), eclectic dances to recorded music held in public squares and parks throughout China and primarily attended by urban retirees. The tradition has received further recognition through a folk-rock rendition of some Left Foot Dance melodies recorded by the band Shanren (山人乐队), Yunnan’s best know folk-rock export.

 The diversity of Yi musical traditions makes it impossible to gain an understanding of Yi music by focusing on a single tradition. Nonetheless, we hope these videos can convey the integral relationship between Yi music and dance, and the vitality of Yi musical culture. As we continue our musical explorations in Yunnan, we will gradually stitch together patchwork of musical impressions that will give our viewers an understanding of the rich musical heritage of this region.

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