Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Buryat elders dancing Yohor in front of the Choijin Lama Temple Museum © Tserendorj Tsolmon

Yohor, Part of a Collective Past, Present, and Future of the Buryat

The performing art of Mongolia, especially the traditional folk dance, is an expression that embodies and originates from the nomadic way of life, expressing their lifestyle, household activities, courage, love, pride, and livestock. The dance is accompanied by singing, and some musical instruments as morin khuur, ikel khuur, tovshuur, tsuur, with the performers dressed ethnic costumes. Since ancient times the motifs and movements in traditional folk dances were used to transmit the narratives and social myths of Mongol history and culture.

Yohor, a singing round dance of the Buryat ethnic group in Mongolia, the Buryat Republic of the Russian Federation, and the People’s Republic of China (Shineheen Buryats), is a complex synchronized expression of poetry, melody, and movement. Yohor is performed in the traditional manner with vocal singing and the modern way with playback music. Elders generally opt for the traditional way and have rich repertoire on Yohor songs. They say that the old way of singing is very important in the traditional way of dancing Yohor and that song can also affect the way of dancing.

The traditional Yohor has three main parts. The first part starts with an appeal to others to join in the Yohor, “Yohoroo khatariya! Khatariya khatarysh” (Let’s do the Yohor dance). In the second part, people stand in a circle holding hands and singing in a low pitch. The dance movements are simple forward or sideways steps, or backward jumps while the arms move up, down, or to the side. It is also common to include swaying body movements as well as head gestures. The dance movements modulate into stamping, hopping, and leaping with changes in the rhythm. For the third and final part of the Yohor, people say, “Hatariya hatarysh” (The dance is finished).

Burat stage performance

The dance may last from several minutes to several hours. According to social myths, people used to do the Yohor for three days during the sacrificial ritual of mountain Yord in the Buryat Republic of Russian Federation. Yohor dance isn’t limited to a single circle, and there is no prescribed number of people in the circles, so it isn’t uncommon for one circle to be larger than another. Yohor is not taught dance, people used to learn by watching the dancing in the social events. As explained by Buryat elders, they mostly do the dance to feel their cultural identity. Dancing Yohor reminds them of the shared past of Buryat ethnic group and strengthens the ethnic identity in the present and for the future. Buryats believe that when singing and moving from heart for the soul, Yohor becomes real. Together with movement, the singing is the core of the Yohor dance.

Shineheen Buryat woman © Tserendorj Tsolmon
Indeed, the Yohor dance reflects a cultural uniqueness and a unity of Buryat people in three countries. Separated because of a long history and complicated political situations, Buryat people’s culture, tradition, and language changed. The Buryat language, an official dialect of Mongolian, has already been included in the category of severely endangered languages by the 2010 UNESCO Interactive Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger. With this language loss, the number of elders who know the song narratives and old Yohor song repertoire are decreasing, and this brings the Yohor dance under the risk of disappearance as its complexity of song and movements but also of language. The annual and biennial cultural festivals, such as Altargana, Yohor, Night Yohor, and Global Yohor, show how Buryats have been trying to revive the traditional culture and art for long time. Even though, the collective memory and living experience of Buryat people is under the risk of disappearance due to rapid modernization and globalization with language loss. It is essential to safeguard ICH, especially dance heritage and the associated community participation. Therefore, it is necessary to take some short- and long-term measures to safeguard this dance heritage. As a short-term measure to promote, encourage, and support elders who have knowledge about traditional Yohor, bring space to them so they can share their knowledge and practice with younger generations through live interactions. As a long-term measure to encourage younger generations to learn the Buryat language, encourage younger generations to learn Yohor dance with vocal singing and support the initiatives from young people using the Yohor in social and cultural contexts.