Twisted, distorted "snaky people," or contortionists, perform the type of classical Mongolian dancing probably most familiar to people outside Mongolia.
The "Bielgee" dance, or dance of the body, is particular to the people of western Mongolia. It is performed to the music of Mongolian national musical instruments, such as the morin khuur (horsehead fiddle) and the yochin (similar to the xylophone.) Bielgee is traditionally performed on the rather limited space before the hearth, so the dancers make practically no use of their feet. Instead, the dancers principally use only the upper part of their bodies, and through their rhythmic movements express various aspects of their identities, such as sex, tribe, and ethic group.
Bielgee is a descriptive dance, actually a pantomime, with the dancer acting several scenes from everyday life of herders, such as milking the cow, cooking, hunting, etc. Originally, Bielgee was improvised, although the themes were set. Only much later did it become strictly regimented compositionally, with a firmly established sequence of scenes. Also, over time, Bielgee was performed in a variety of locations, including festivals in herders' tents, ceremonies by local dignitaries, and monasteries.
The first part of the Bielgee dance, called the Elkhendeg, is ritually solemn, with the dancer slowly spreading his arms, gracefully waving his hands and moving his shoulders. In the second part, called the Joroo Mori, the character of the dance suddenly changes. The body rhythmically swaying, the dancer's movements become light and challenging, in imitation of the gait of a horse.
Dances imitating the gait of a horse, such as the Shonon khar and Jamal khar, are in general very popular amongst the Derbets, Bayads, Torguts, Khotons and Zakhchins of western Mongolia. Each nationality, however, performs them in its own way. The Bayads, for instance, dance on half-bent legs, with the lower part of the body motionless. The Zakhchins squat as they dance, with the body inclined forward. The ability to dance without using one's feet at all is the ultimate achievement in the art.
Another popular Western Mongolian dance is performed with cups. You may come across old men and women in the countryside who will tell you with fascination what magnificent dancers performed it in the past when it was very much in vogue. They balanced cups full of water on their heads without spilling a single drop. The dance varies depending on whether the cups are balanced on the head, hands, or knees. The Derbets, Zakhchins and Torguts dance with the cups on their heads and the backs of their hands, while the Bayads balance the cups on their knees. Significantly, only males danced with cups on their knees. The dancers squatted as low as possible, spreading their legs apart to the width of their shoulders, which was thought improper for females to do. In olden days, the dance with cups on the knees was performed on festive occasions, such as feasts and wedding parties.
An interesting tradition arose in the past in connection with the cup dance. A group gathering in a ger on a festive occasion formed two teams and held a dancing competition. They usually started with the cups on the palms of their hands. Then they danced with cups on their heads and on their knees, which was much more difficult to do. Those who had spilled the least water from their cups were proclaimed the winners.
Each dance is distinguished by extraordinary flexibility, composition, and color. When examining the dances, it is useful to recall that the traditional manner of performing Bielgee and other dances has been handed down from generation to generation and reaches us in a somewhat modified form.