Party Animals: Lion dancers bring traditional pride to festive events
By Katie Menzer / The Dallas Morning News

For many people, the arrival of a lion at a wedding, party or grand opening would not be a blessing. But for Bee Dao, such a visitation is the cat's meow.
"The lion represents the scaring away of bad luck and the bringing of good luck," said the 24-year-old graduate student. "It's a blessing."

Allison V. Smith / DMN
Albert Nguyen warms up before donning his costume to practice at J.K. Wong Kungfu Tai Chi Academy in Richardson. He joined the academy when he was 10 years old, after seeing a lion dance at a Chinese New Year's party.
Mr. Dao is one of about 30 students of a local kung fu academy who are practicing lion dancing, an ancient Chinese ritual that combines exercise and artistry.
The origins of the dance, once performed only by kung fu scholars, are unclear. But the ritual is mentioned in Chinese literature dating back to the Tang dynasty in the seventh through 10th centuries, said Meng-fen Su, an East Asian studies librarian at the University of Texas at Austin. The dance is performed at celebrations by an increasing number of students and members of cultural community centers.
"It's really competitive and well-respected overseas, but it's gaining popularity here," said Mr. Dao, who is a student and teacher of lion dancing at J.K. Wong Kungfu Tai Chi Academy in Richardson.
The academy's students have performed at a wide array of places in the Dallas area, from parties thrown by Dr Pepper/7-Up Inc. to cultural events at a Mesquite school.
Mr. Dao, an MBA student at the University of Texas at Dallas, said students traveled to Hong Kong in 1995 to participate in an international lion-dancing competition.
Traditional performances, which can last up to 30 minutes, are a complex mixture of mime and mythology. The lion must go through symbolic obstacles, such as climbing a tree or crossing a river, before it can receive a prize - often a red envelope full of money that is the performers' reward for the dance.
The lion dance requires two performers - a head and a tail - who move in semi-choreographed tandem to the beat of drums, gongs and cymbals.
The lion's head is a framework of bamboo rods covered with brightly painted papier-mache. The operator uses a system of levers to make the cat's eyes flutter or mouth gape. Light bulbs can be used to make the eyes spark with fiery emotion.
The performer in the back is covered with a long multicolored cloth accented with wool or rabbit fur that hangs from the lion's head. A fur-covered stick inserted through the cloth wags the tail.
Although the head is the high-profile position, the performer at the tail is the backbone of the dance, said Jimmy K. Wong, the sifu - or teacher - at the academy.

Allison V. Smith / DMN
Albert Nguyen (top) and Bee Dao practice leaps.

"The tail has the toughest job," said Mr. Wong, a U.S. representative and judge for the International Dragon and Lion Dance Federation in Hong Kong. "He has to have very strong hands and back."

The tail dancer must crouch for most of the performance, his hands resting on the hips of the dancer in front. Only when the lion is rearing on its hind legs does he stand erect, to balance the weight of the front performer above his head.

Mr. Wong, who grew up in Malaysia and has practiced martial arts for three decades, said his students must study kung fu for at least six months before they are allowed to don the lion's skin. He said the strength and discipline gained through the martial art are essential for good lion dancing.

Albert Nguyen, who is the head to Mr. Dao's tail, said he joined the academy when he was 10 years old after seeing a lion dance during a Chinese New Year's celebration. Back then, the school had not acquired any "baby" lion costumes, so he had to wait almost five years before he was strong enough to dance with the lion's 8-pound head.

Now 21 and a junior at Texas A&M University, Mr. Nguyen returns to Richardson about once a month to practice the dance. He said his favorite parts of the performances are the acrobatics.

"The jumping we do is a lot of fun," he said. "We don't make it a lot of the time in practice, but we always seem to get it when we're performing. It's a rush of excitement when the crowd reacts with enthusiasm. They appreciate it so much because it's not seen very often."

During a recent performance at a martial-arts tournament in Plano, Mr. Nguyen and Mr. Dao jumped a length of what seemed like the length of a body with exact synchronicity between small inverted pots representing rocks in an imaginary river. Although most dancers at the school practice their routines for about an hour each week, the performances often require emergency improvisation.

"Most of the time it is choreographed, but sometimes something will happen with your equipment and the lion will have to improvise," Mr. Dao said. "What are you supposed to do if something topples over? You can't stop the show. You react calmly inside, but express excitement on the outside like any animal would when something sudden and unexpected happens. Lion Dance requires quick instinct and trust in your partner."

Although the lion costume is often mistaken for a dragon, lion and dragon dances are distinct Chinese rituals, Mr. Wong said. The dragon dance, which can involve a dozen performers, is used as a celebration. The dance of the lion, thought to be the guardian of the heavens, is used to bring luck. The lion serves as a connection between heavens and the earth.

Mr. Wong likens the lion dance to a game of basketball - each team member must excel to win. "It's the best representation of China," Mr. Wong said. "When you see the lion dancing, it's unique."


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