Isn’t it surprising that when observing Kung Fu fight scenes, the martial artists sometimes look as if they could be performing a type of dance? On the other hand, while watching a Chinese classical dance show like Shen Yun, which is performed by a Chinese traditional dance company from New York, the dancers’ jumps look very similar to those seen in Kung Fu fight scenes. So what’s going on here? Is there a connection between these seemingly different, yet similar forms of art?
Originally, traditional Chinese dance and the art of Kung Fu were created by the earliest progenitors of Chinese culture, some 5,000 years ago. Yet, even though these “twin flowers” of ancient Chinese culture are connected at the root, they differ vastly from each other in more ways than one.
Traditionally, classical Chinese dance was designed to entertain dignitaries of the imperial court as performance art. On the other hand, Chinese martial arts were used solely for fulfilling the practical purpose of fighting enemies and defending in warfare. The differences between the two art forms are found in three main elements that are present in both. They are form, bearing, and technique.
In dance, “form” is the appearance of dancers displaying their repertoire in an array of different steps and poses. The steps are choreographed and combine with certain poses which, when chained together, create an exquisitely graceful sequence of dances. When performed for audiences, the practice of “form” manifests beauty and grace.
Kung Fu also has sets of movements and fist forms. But it serves a completely different purpose. Its movements are guided by practicality. “Form” manifests when serving the purpose with regards to attacking or defending. “Form” definitely exists in martial arts, but it is not usually applied just for the sake of aesthetic appeal.
On the frame of “form” hangs “bearing.” It can be called the soul of form. It’s the “feeling” that dancers put into their presentation. “Bearing” can be described by the way in which the entire body, including the look in the eyes, is blended into the dance. A simple gesture would convey a dancer’s intent and is directed by the breath. It is the spirit of the dancer that guides the body to convey the unique tone and mood of an intended message. “Bearing” forms a delicate connection between the performers and their audience. “Bearing” can literally be described as a unique form of communication. It’s composed of a vast array of gestures and conveys the meanings present in the storyline including intonation — just like a language. It is very expressive.
Chinese Kung Fu has its own type of “bearing.” It is not as strongly emphasized as in dance though. “Bearing” is mainly used by martial artists for the purpose of moving energy more naturally which, in turn, helps in the art of attack or defense.
Leaps, flips, and tumbling techniques are characteristics of traditional Chinese dance and are also found in Kung Fu. Carrying out these skills requires dancers to perform their flips and tumbles with absolute grace.
In a kick, for instance, the leg moves along a short line and its movements are volatile and quick. The kicks are sometimes completed using short, direct paths. But the bodily extensions, flips, and jumps performed in Kung Fu are used exclusively for enhancing reach and attack power.
The similarities between martial arts techniques and classical Chinese dance look interchangeable at first glance. But you will notice that although they are connected to each other at the source, their appearance in the world differs vastly in purpose and expression.