Yue Xiang: Peacock Dance King

In 1986, a nervous but excited Yue Xiang made his debut on the national stage as part of a peacock dance troupe. One year later, he performed solo on the same stage. The primeval choreography and drumbeats appealed to the audiences and he won second prize in the national folk dance competition, gaining considerable fame in his hometown and being lauded as the Peacock Dance King.

 Yue Xiang (standing) performs the indigenous male peacock dance at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music on July 13, 2013.

Standing Out

Yue Xiang has put on performances all over the country and attracted a large number of dance fans who acknowledge him as their mentor. However, Yue Xiang often says modestly, “Many of my peers are able to do this dance just as well. What makes me stand out is that I was lucky enough to have had the opportunity to observe more, learn more and create more.”

Practicing peacocks’ movements has become an essential part of his life for over 50 years. Every morning, he exercises, first shaking his shoulders imitating the bird shaking its feathers and then mimicking the bird’s pecking movements. He makes a peacock’s head with his fingers and pecks, presenting the agility of the bird.

Yue Xiang has also choreographed his own signature move, which is quite challenging: He shakes his shoulders, turns around, poses, half squats, then turns and stretches one leg. Despite being in his sixties, his leg movements are swift and the gestures graceful.

As well as innovations in choreography, the Peacock Dance King has contributed a lot to the creation of peacock boxing. It was in 1982 on the occasion of the Ethnic Minority Games, that he started to think about what kind of sport could best represent the Dai ethnic group. Inspired by snake boxing and mantis boxing created by the Han people, Yue Xiang decided to integrate the peacocks’ movements with traditional Dai boxing, thus creating peacock boxing.

Strength as well as grace is embodied in peacock boxing. When stretching out the arms and fists, one’s body must form three curves, which enhance one’s flexibility. The movements in peacock boxing exercise the joints in the whole body. The sport also requires its practitioners to make their eye movements match each physical movement. In 1999, Yue Xiang won first place in a peacock boxing competition.

Preserving the Dance Legacy

With the aim of passing down Chinese cultural heritage to later generations, Yue Xiang has taught his sons and grandchildren the dance and led them to present performances. He specifically choreographed a special duo dance in which his grandson and granddaughter played a peacock and peahen. No doubt inspired by their grandfather, these two grandchildren are professional dancers, the grandson at the Ruili Ethnic Song and Dance Ensemble and the granddaughter at a dance center in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province.

Yue Xiang is keen to pass on his skills to anyone who wants to learn from him, without exception. He has built a simple studio with a stage in his courtyard to offer dance lessons; classes are taught on the second floor of a two-story bamboo building, while a good number of photos and commendations hang on the walls downstairs. His house is particularly busy during the summer vacation when parents bring their children to him to learn the dance.

An expert once remarked that the most praiseworthy quality of a cultural custodian was to have cultural self-awareness. Yue Xiang has been protecting Chinese culture from his home as an integral part of his daily life. More importantly, his activities and performances are neither for commercial gain nor for personal fame. He is passing on cultural heritage in the most natural way - giving performances and lessons when visitors come to watch and learn, getting on with making a living the rest of the time. His approach may be one of the clearest demonstrations of art in its purest form, and one of the overriding reasons why the peacock dance should be preserved in this way.

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