Those who dance on

No 1, Vol.6, January – February 2016

Young Pà Thẻn men dance barefoot on red hot coals. Now and then, one squats down, grabs the burning coal and throws it up. Myriads of sparks spread like fireworks amongst excited shouts of admiring spectators.
This is the unique and esoteric ritual of the Fire Dance Fest of the Pà Thẻn people at Hồng Quang commune, Lâm Bình district, Tuyên Quang province.
Fire Dance Fest, the Pà Thẻn counterpart of the “new rice offering” of many other ethnic minorities of Việt Nam, has been held for over 300 years. The date is not fixed; it falls after the autumn harvest (anywhere from the middle of the 10th lunar month to the first full moon of the next year.) This is also the coldest time of the year. The most important ritual takes place from 7 to 11 pm.
Fire Dance Fest is to thank the supreme Pà Thẻn god – the god of Fire – and heaven and earth for good crops and for dispelling diseases and evil spirits; it also honors courage that helps people face danger.
The ritual takes place at a large clearing in a village the centre. At nightfall, people gather around 2 firewood stacks about 4-5 m3 each. The organizers have already prepared all the offerings such as a musical instrument, a chicken, a bowl of rice, 10 glasses of wine, and bamboo paper which is only used in Pà Thẻn faith-related rituals.
At a certain time, the wood stacks are ignited and the shaman begins the ritual. While the shaman communicates with the spirit world, the dancers sit in front of him to get into a trance and renew their spirit.
After about 2 hours, the communication is done and the dancers seem to have been spirited. The dance begins and continues until the coal turns to ashes, at about 11pm. The dancers then get drowsy and fall asleep immediately. The next morning they don’t remember what happened the previous night.
Miraculously, the dancers’ feet show no injury whatsoever.
Phù Văn Minh, a boy of 17 from Thượng Minh village, told me he felt quite anxious before the dance, especially when sitting in front of the shaman. But after listening to the shaman’s murmuring under the music he played for a while, Minh felt as if hypnotized and began trampling the fire and grabbing the coal to throw it in the air.
This was the first time Minh took part in the dance. Pà Thẻn men at Thượng Minh must perform the fire dance without injury to show their maturity. To Minh, the first fire dance was like passing the life test for his adulthood to be “recognized” by the shaman.
Unlike Phù Văn Minh, another Pà Thẻn young man named Lý Văn Trụ has already taken part in the fire dance many times. Trụ danced on fire not only in his commune’s fest but also in the fest of Pà Thẻn people in Bắc Quang district of Hà Giang. Trụ said, the most important thing in the ritual is the shaman’s capacity. There have been many cases when dancers got burnt. That’s because the shaman conducted the ritual incorrectly, and the dancer jumped into the fire before being told.n

Text & photo by Vu Tuan
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