“Tac xinh” is the most popular dance performed by the San Chi, an ethnic minority group in northern Thai Nguyen province at their most important ceremony of the year.
Hau Duc Nhanh, a San Chi man in Tuc Tranh Commune, wakes up very early in the morning. But, for a change, he is not going to his rice field today. He is scheduled to perform tac xinh – a ceremonial dance with another young man from his village.
A procession begins at 7 am with village elders wearing traditional chasubles, followed by some young men who carry food trays and alcohol to offer the local gods. They are accompanied by local officials and other villagers wearing their most beautiful and colourful clothes – all proceeding to a small temple in the woods not far from the village.
On behalf of the villagers, elder Hau Van Dao, 66, burns incense and reads some prayers.
At 8am, Nhanh, wearing his yellow costume, and another young man, Hau Tien Dac in red clothes, passionately dance around each other to the loud music and cheers from the gathering crowd.
Local commune official Le Minh Thao says, “The dance has become very popular among the San Chi as it embodies their spirit of hope for a better life.”
Like other ethnic groups in Vietnam, the San Chi live by farming. They are closely associated with mountains and forests around them, where their traditional farming practice has taken deep root.
The ceremony to pray for a bumper crop is the most important of all their cultural and religious activities. The San Chi perform it to thank heaven, earth, and the local gods for favourable weather conditions, good crops and a prosperous and healthy life.
The ceremony is a chance for the San Chi to enjoy themselves before entering a new production season.
“The tac xinh dance follows step-by-step instructions that have been passed down from parent to child over many generations,” says elder Dao.
As a rule, after the two main dancers finish the ceremonial dance, other young men and girls will join in dancing for joy together.
Local Party Committee Secretary Hau Van Luong says the name tac xinh is a variant of “tac xich” – in the San Chi language. It means “eatable,” or “allowed to eat”. The dance expresses hope for fertility and plenty of farm produce.
“We dance tac xinh to pray for good weather, good rice and corn crops and a peaceful and happy life. The dance also aims to commemorate ancestors. It serves as a bridge between the universe and human beings to link the world of the living with the world of the dead. It raises hopes and aspirations among the youths to conquer the forces of nature,” Luong says.
Local musicians keep the rhythm for tac xinh dancers by using bamboo poles and an earth-drum.
People make the earth-drum by digging a hole 60cm deep, with a diameter of 50cm at the bottom and 20cm at the top, covered by tree bark. It makes a sound when people knock on its cover.
Each musician holds a 1,8m long bamboo pole in one hand and beats it with another piece of bamboo in the other hand to create a “tach” sound. Then he strikes the bamboo pole against a wood floor to create a “xich” sound.
The dance movement keeps pace with the rymthmic sounds of “ tach tach xich – tach tach xich – tach xich.”
Additional sounds are contributed by other instruments such as cymbals, Pi le clarinets and small drums, putting the dancers in a more cheerful mood.
Hau Duc Nhanh says the tac xinh dance consists of seven basic steps like those taken by the San Chi in their traditional farming practice, such as sharpening knives, clearing the bushes, preparing land for cultivation, sowing seeds, tending rice, harvesting crops and performing rituals in tribute to the gods’ blessing.
“We believe that the more enthusiastically and precisely the dancers and musicians perform, the more the gods will bless our crops,” he says.
While the religious rituals require strict observance, the festival which follows is for everyone, young or old, to enjoy themselves.
The villagers also play traditional games, including top spinning and nem con (throwing a colourful ball) through a ring at the top of a high bamboo pole. Some young men like to stand on their heads.
“The festival offers a good chance for the youths, especially tac xinh dancers, to choose partners and start a courtship,” says Nhanh with a happy smile on his face.
“That’s why we consider the tac xinh dance as a sweet fruit of harmony between Yin and Yang, between nature and human beings.”