The Tradition of Lion Dance!
By Bonnie Pan, Brown University
Every Monday and Thursday, I put on my sweats, tennis shoes, and a loose-fitting t-shirt, head over to the student-run center for the arts, and slip into an artisan-crafted lion head, bedazzled with faux fur, shiny gold sequins, and multi-colored pom-poms. We practice stacking, teasing, and drumming for two hours, learning about Asian cultures and enjoying each other’s company in the meantime.
Lion dance is a huge part of Chinese culture, and has been for thousands of years. Whenever we have new members joining lion dance, we tell them a story about its origin. Legend has it that an emperor from an ancient time once had a dream about a creature he’d only heard about from rumors of the west. He described a fantastical creature with multicolored fur and golden eyes. This evolved into the lion costumes we see today in performances at events such as Chinese New Year, weddings, and the opening of businesses where it is believed to bring prosperity and happiness.
Lion dance has grown tremendously over the years to where it is now popular in all of Asia, including Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. The traditions for each location are different, (drum beats, costumes, tricks and stacks) but they all share the same basic roots.
It’s hard to describe a lion dance performance to someone who hasn’t been to one, but I’ll try to outline a general practice that we do at Brown Lion Dance.
To get ready for the rest of the practice, we have to warm up first! The captains usually lead a round of stretches and we follow suit in a circle.
The lion dance we do includes some martial arts, so after stretching we go into a series of kung fu stances in front of the wall-length mirrors. We start with a horse stance, then go into bow-and-arrow, then a cross stance, crane, and horse stance again.
Our routine includes a wakeup routine, three bows, a seven star routine, and a mountain routine. These basically describe a story in which two lions enthusiastically enter a scene, drink alcohol, fall into a drunken stupor, and get up and fight each other. These stories sometimes involve fighting over lettuce, oranges, or other symbolic elements.
More information about Lion Dance
Who’s in the lion?
Each lion is made up of two dancers—one in the head and one in the tail. The dancer in the tail imitates the body movements of a lion while the dancer in the head controls its facial expressions. There is a flap for the mouth of the lion which the dancer can use to imitate eating or drinking, and there is a string inside the head which the dancer can use to work the eyes. Different combinations of movements within the head can evoke different emotions—an essential part to playing a convincing lion. A teaser, or a human character with a mask and a Chinese fan, may also take part in the performance by provoking the lion with his fan or other props.
Any cool tricks?
If you’ve ever seen a lion dance performance, you’ll know that one of the more impressive parts is when the dancer in the lion head is lifted by the dancer in the lion’s tail to create the illusion that the lion is standing up. This move is called “stacking,” and is often the climax of the performance. It takes some practice to do correctly—I’ve had friends fall over from pretty tall heights from doing an improper stack.
What about music?
Background rhythms are provided by a drummer and a variable number of cymbalists. There is a general walk beat, which is played when the lions are teasing the audience, and separate beats for each routine (wakeup, three bows, seven star, mountain…etc).
The lion dance group at my school is very flexible, so each person plays a number of roles for each performance. For instance, I’ve played the head of the lion, the tail, and the drummer for different practices. Because of our fluidity, performances are very easy to plan since almost anyone can play any role.
In addition to being part of the performance, I recently also became webmaster for the group, which means I manage the updates on our website! They basically appointed me just because I have minimal experience in HTML and am majoring in computer science, which automatically makes me a computer whiz. Visit us at http://students.brown.edu/Liondance/.
Even though this all seems like it takes a lot of work to master to the point of being able to perform, lion dance is a lot of fun because of the camaraderie in our group. Outside of practice, we are friends who study, party, and hang out together. Two hours of practice every Monday and Thursday doesn’t seem so much like work as it does like working out with friends.