This weekend marks the start of the Lunar New Year and the Year of the Dragon. Many Asian cultures celebrate Lunar New Year with varying traditions. San Diego Legendary Lion Dance Association explains the art and meaning of lion dances.
Growing up with a Chinese grandfather meant that my family got to celebrate every year. My grandfather would tell us about being a boy in China and celebrating for 15 days with food, family and, of course, firecrackers.
The ones he loved as a child were the "string" firecrackers, made up of hundreds of little firecrackers, braided together by their fuses, and when you lit one end of the braid, hundreds of these firecrackers would explode, one after the other. The firecrackers are supposed to ward off bad spirits but, for a lion dancer, the smoke and the noise can be a challenge.
"That's why we tell our performers to wear a mask and wear earplugs, as well," said Peter Khem, team leader and coordinator with San Diego Legendary Lion Dance Association. "The purpose behind lion dance is to ward off evil spirits and bad luck, and bring the good luck and prosperity to any individual or group. When people see the lion dance, it's not just a dance. It's basically a Chinese martial arts form."
Lion dances are a popular tradition in Asia during Lunar New Year, but you might wonder: Why a lion? Lions are not native to China.
Lion dancing dates back thousands of years, to the Tang Dynasty, and a legend about the emperor having a dream in which an animal he deemed to be a lion saved his life.
"People didn't know what a lion was, so they basically just went off on what the emperor saw in his dream," Khem said.
That’s why the costume for the lion dance is so stylized and spectacular. It is often colored a bold red or bright gold with large eyes, fluffy rounded ears, a big mouth and flowing body. It is amazing to see a pair of dancers breath life into what is essentially a large puppet.
"There's two positions," Khem said. "There's the head and tail. As a head player, your job is to portray the lion’s expression, which can be anything: happy, anger, sadness. And, as a tail, your job is to follow the head player's footwork. Because, whatever footwork the head does, the tail does with it. And, if you're doing stunts, the other jobs as a tail is be able to lift your partner up."
The result is a fluid, graceful and energetic performance in which a lion might jump on tables, rise up on its hind legs or prance around a crowd, all to very distinctive and vibrant music created by a trio of instruments.
"There's the drums, which is the heartbeat of the performance, the cymbals and the gong," Khem said.
The head of the lion can be extremely expressive as the dancer operates strings and levers to wiggle the ears, blink the eyes, and open and close the mouth.
"As a head player, your main role is to portray a strong, good expression and storytelling," Khem said. "Basically, the way I see it is, like any form of dance, it's not just like synchronization with the music and coordination. You have to give the lion life because, in lion dancing, you have to play the character of a lion. It's all storytelling. And it has to be something that's captivating for the audience to understand."
The lion’s head is made of bamboo, papier-mâché and fabric. It can cost a thousand dollars. It can also be a challenge to operate.
"When you wear the costume, you have very limited vision," Khem said. "If you're a head, you mainly look through the mouth, while at the same time you have to listen to the music. Because, in lion dancing, it's a lot of multitasking."
It also takes a lot of cardio and strength, which is why a lot of the dancers are also into martial arts. Being inside a beautiful flowing costume can make spectators forget how much work and stamina it takes to perform multiple five- or six-minute routines in a row. People may also see lion dancing as something just for Asians.
"We want people to see that lion dance is for anyone, regardless of race, gender or religion," Khem said.
Legendary Lion Dance Association has been around since 2000, with male and female team members as young as 13.
"Our goal is to preserve and promote the Chinese culture and art," Khem said. "We are very proud and honored to still continue this art. And we hope that we can inspire more people in the young generations to be part of the Lions community."
Lunar New Year is the perfect time to share and celebrate that culture and heritage.
San Diego Legendary Lion Dance Association will be performing its midnight lion dance show Friday starting at 10 p.m. at Chua Ba Thien Hau. You can find a schedule of performances on the group's Facebook page.