Chimney Sweep

Malaysia Has Turned Lion Dancing Right into a Gravity-Defying Excessive Sport

At the biannual Genting World Lion Dance Championship in Malaysia in 2018, a row of 21 poles with a height of 1.20 to 2.40 m lined the arena. On top of each was a platform 12 inches in diameter. Suddenly a light blue Chinese lion with white fur trimmed to the rhythm of a beating drum and clinking cymbals jumped onto the stilts. The lion cocked its head and reared on its hind legs and seemed to jump effortlessly between the bars – some even up to 6 feet apart. The Chinese lion dance is supposed to look lovely and whimsical, but beneath the colorful costume were two immaculately coordinated performers who had been practicing stunts and acrobatics for nearly a decade.

“As lion dancers, we always follow this motto that 10 years of practice equals one minute on stage,” says Calvin Zhen, who currently plays the lion head for Leung’s White Crane Dragon and Lion Dance Association, a competitive team based in San Francisco. Zhen, now 24, performed as a drummer in that competition in 2018 and has been training in the sport since he was 13. Watch the lion dance and see what the culture is like, “says Zhen. “I’ve just fallen in love with the lion dance since then.”

The lion dance is performed to herald happiness and prosperity and is an integral part of the Lunar New Year and other celebrations such as birthdays, weddings or corporate events. Mime performance has always required a certain level of style and athleticism, but over the past 30 years Chinese Malaysians have stepped up the stakes and turned the old tradition into an extreme sport. High pole lion dancers must seamlessly jump between these tiny platforms while performing stunts and mimicking the playful nature of a lion. A single misstep – which is common in competitions – can result in serious injury.

The lion dances are both acrobatic and emotional performances. Courtesy of the Khuan Loke Dragon & Lion Dance Association

“Oh, I’ve hurt myself so many times,” says Willson Hoang with a laugh. Hoang is Zhen’s partner, who played tail in the 2018 championship. The 23-year-old has been practicing the lion dance for 11 years. “Fortunately, I’ve never broken a bone, I’m very grateful for that.”

The specific origins of the lion dance are unclear, but scholars believe the custom probably began during the Three Kingdoms Period in China between the years 220 and 280. Emissaries from Persia and Central Asia gave lions to the imperial court and the popularity of cats percolated into the common classes. In addition, lions play an important role in Buddhist mythology, which spread to China in the first and second centuries.

“There are different stories about how the lion dance began, but we usually say that the lion dance was done to drive away ghosts or bad auras,” says Tony Sin, who trains and is the Yuen Wei Dragon and Lion Dance Group in Malaysia an occasional competition judge. According to a popular legend, the dance was performed to scare away the nian, a mythical animal that terrorized Chinese villagers every winter. The lion dance was joined by fireworks and the color red – allegedly also to drive away the Nian – as part of the Lunar New Year traditions, which took place in January or February. The Chinese diaspora has since spread the custom around the world, where it has changed and evolved.

<em>Hundreds of children play in spring</em>, a 12th century painting by Su Hanchen.  includes a lion dance (below).  “width =” auto “data-kind =” article-image “id =” article-image-80343 “src =” “/> Hundred children playing in the Spring, a 12th century painting by Su Hanchen with a lion dance (below). <span class=The Bildkunst / Alamy collection

Sin explains that there are two main types of lions in China: northern and southern. The Northern has a shaggy red and gold coat, while the Southern comes in a range of colors and is most commonly seen on the international scene. In addition, the southern lion dance style can be divided into the Futsan and Hoksan styles. “The Futsan lion has a sharp horn on its head and its mouth is U-shaped,” says Sin, while the Hoksan has a rounded horn and a flat mouth. “The Hoksan doesn’t look that wild compared to the Futsan and is a bit cuter,” he says. Both styles can be seen in competition on the international stage.

The lion dance also has a long history associated with martial arts as the two share many athletic postures and movements. In fact, during the first half of the 20th century, the lion dance was a way for rival martial arts schools to show off their talent. For additional flair, the actors played on an obstacle course manipulated by juries made of stacked furniture, balance beams or upturned vases. As the custom spread to Malaysia in the 19th century, Chinese Malaysians took the sport to new heights.

“When the lion dance seeds were sown in Malaysia, we decided that we had to be great at it – the best,” says Master Ho Phiew Siow (translated from Mandarin) from his workshop where he makes lion dance costumes. Siow, 66, is a second generation Chinese Malaysian who has practiced the lion dance for over 40 years. He describes himself as the “leading hand” in the development of the multi-pole lion dance in Malaysia. As he strolls through his workshop, which is lined with rattan lion head frames and partially painted costumes, Siow explains that the dance was built on martial arts traditions of jumping through improvised acrobatic arenas that sometimes included wooden stilts. Working with other lion dance lovers in Malaysia, Siow helped standardize the performance arena with arranged metal stilts and a 10-point scoring system.

“We Malaysians are very persistent,” says Siow. “We wanted people from all over the world to recognize Malaysian lion dancers as the best in the world.” The first Genting World Lion Dance Championship was held in 1994, and Siow wanted a Malaysian team to win the biennial competition every time .

“We’re pretty strict on the trigger,” says Albert Fong, director of the Khuan Loke Dragon & Lion Dance Association in Malaysia. Fong himself came second in the 2000 Genting Competition as a Tail Dancer. “A small slip gets a deduction of 0.1 and can lead to losing a championship, so everything is really tense for a performance.”

The 2020 competition was postponed until further notice due to the pandemic, but 36 teams from 16 countries competed in 2018. More recently, the International Lion Dance Federation has also updated the row of stilts to resemble the Chinese character wang, which means “king,” with three parallel rows crossed by a long line.

Leung's White Crane Dragon and Lion Dance Association trains for a performance. Leung’s White Crane Dragon and Lion Dance Association trains for a performance. Courtesy Leung’s White Crane Dragon and Lion Dance Association

“Once we’ve figured out the setup, we try to choreograph a lion dance with a storyline and a routine,” says Zhen. Her 2018 performance had an oceanic theme where the lion pulled a stuffed fish out of a bucket and tossed it around with its mouth.

In order to be ready for competition, Zhen’s team, Leung’s White Crane, consisting of the two lion dancers and five musicians, practices three to five times a week for three to six hours at a time, “he says.

The bars differ in height by 20 cm, so training begins with setting up shorter stilts to get used to hopping the distance between the bars. “We have a muscle memory for the distance we need to jump,” says Zhen. Zhen and Hoang first cultivate this muscle memory individually and then practice the movements in coordination. Once the couple can safely move between the bars, they can start working on the stunts. In order to impress the jury, they need to prepare 10 different types of stunts, including some that they invented.

Dancers practice their routines on lower platforms before starting their performances. Dancers practice their routines on lower platforms before starting their performances. Courtesy of the Khuan Loke Dragon & Lion Dance Association

In a sort of motion, a “double stack” lifts Hoang Zhen by the hips onto his head as he leaps over the stilts. On other trains, the team has to perform synchronized jumps backwards – difficult because Hoang and Zhen cannot see where they are going. “I think the hardest part is finding the timing between the two jumping partners,” says Zhen.

In fact, it was a small time lag that caused Hoang and his partner to slide off the bars onto the blue safety mats during the 2018 competition. “We were just very disappointed at the moment,” says Hoang, because the slip cost the team a whole point. “But if there weren’t any mistakes, how would you learn?” Fortunately, neither was injured and while the audience cheered them on, Hoang and his partner dusted off, climbed back on the bars, and ended the show.

Despite the performance setback, Leung’s White Crane team believes their best is yet to come. Zhen and Hoang dream of a top three at the Genting World Championship whenever the next one takes place. “It’s like the Olympic Games for the lion dance,” says Hoang.

At home in California, the two share a common desire for dance to become more popular in their communities and for people to take it seriously as a competitive sport. “It’s a way for us Asians to connect with our culture,” says Hoang, who is of Vietnamese-American descent. “I feel like our job is to keep them alive.”

Preserving culture and striving for excellence are common themes across continents and generations. “It doesn’t matter where you are in the world,” says Siow, “you have to preserve the best parts of your culture. If everyone comes together to do this, I believe if it’s good today, it will be bigger tomorrow. “

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button