Miao Drum Dancer Shi Shunmin: The Beat Goes on

Since then, Shi has been fully committed to dancing. The definitive drum dancing queen, Shi is a winner of many national and regional dance awards. “I can skip food, but I could never skip beating the drum, it’s a part of my life,” Shi said.

Discovering Life through Dance

 A Miao child plays drum.

“In Miao drum dancing, many movements are related to everyday life and farming, aspects central to Miao culture, such as plowing fields, harvesting crops, personal grooming and embroidering,” Shi explained. With one hand beating the drum, she passes the other by her head, mimicking combing the hair; a bending movement symbolizes spinning; twisting fingers and raising the forearm represents embroidery; other day-to-day activities such as digging, sowing seeds and harvesting are also symbolically acted out through dance. In several minutes, daily work scenes of the Miao people are vividly revealed.

A central instrument in ancient sacrificial ceremonies and wars of the Miao people, the drum was the dancing totem of their tribes, revealing their spirit and soul. Their migration from north to south scattered Miao tribes, but whenever they heard the beat of the Miao drum, they would understand its implicit meaning.

Over the years, Shi has added many modern elements to traditional Miao drum dancing, enhancing its rhythmic beats and distinctive features as well as its choreographic complexity, so appealing to the greater public.

Dancing On

Shi sees it as her responsibility to carry on this beautiful, time-honored art form for future generations.

In 2004, Shi retired from her job at the local cultural center. She opened a Miao drum dancing class in her backyard offering free lessons. When she was younger, Shi was taken by the thrill of performing on the stage; but by 2004, she was more interested in channeling her time and energy toward fostering new inheritors of the art form.

At first glance, the makeshift studio in Shi’s backyard is a rather crude environment for such a beautiful dance. It has the necessities – a dozen huge, crimson drums and two big mirrors on opposing walls – but also holes in the ceiling. Yet this doesn’t worry Shi. It doesn’t stop students from coming to her; as Shi proudly reminded us, notable drum dancers of younger generations, such as Long Junlan and Long Jupei, have all come out of Shi’s dance studio. As her students pass the art to others, people who have learned from her directly or indirectly now number close to 10,000. They work for 180-odd Miao drum troupes.

But Shi is not satisfied with the current scope of drum dancing’s influence and is striving to do even more for this heritage. In order to involve more and more people in her love of drum dancing, Shi and her students travel to middle and primary schools in remote areas to teach. Shi said, “Our lessons are free, and we teach students until they can do it at will.” Shi also plans to produce instructional videos according to the types and schools of Miao drum dancing to encourage even more people beyond the borders of Xiangxi and even China to learn.

Her mission is gaining momentum. Today, women sporting traditional Miao silver headwear and costumes performing the dance on street corners and squares is a common sight in Jishou. When they move, the sweet tinkling of their silver trimmings accompanies the drumbeat. It should remind you what Shi Shunmin has done to pass on this graceful art.

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