A Royal Performance: The lion is king in the traditional Chinese Dance
By Elena Gaon, Advertising Writer / The Dallas Morning News

Richardson graduate student Bee Dao remembers looking forward to his Kungfu classes as a youngster at the J.K. Wong Kungfu Tai Chi Academy, located near his home in Richardson. The strong, muscular movements called to him. He wanted to be one of the top students. He dreamed of being a champion. And then he was asked to put on a Lion costume and dance.

"I quit coming," says Mr. Dao, now 24 and an MBA student at the University of Texas at Dallas in Richardson.

Convinced by his mother to give it a second chance, Mr. Dao returned to the Academy and slowly began to appreciate the Chinese Lion Dance, a traditional art form that has come to symbolize so much in his life - strength, art, culture, beauty, athleticism, dedication, and pride.

After 15 years of training in the Chinese martial arts and 12 years in Lion Dance techniques, Mr. Dao now helps teach children and teens the agile steps of the legendary dance.

Lion Dancer Bee Dao prepares a lion head before a performance for the Chinese new year celebrations. Mr. Dao teaches and trains lion dance at J.K. Wong Kungfu Tai Chi Academy in Richardson under Master Jimmy Wong.

"It's such a beautiful art and I have learned to respect it as an important part of the Asian art, culture, and tradition," he says. "It seemed silly when I was first introduced to it, but now promoting and educating the community about lion dance is the primary reason why I train."

According to Chinese lore, hundreds of years ago, a Chinese village was under constant threat by local bandits, who dressed up as demons to scare away villagers. The marauders then took the townspeople's food and valuables. To defend themselves, the villagers concocted their own creatures - dragons and lions - out of papier-mache. The villagers banged their pots and pans as their colorful creations swayed, scaring away looters and evil spirits. Thus the lion dance was born.

Subsequent generations adopted the lion dance as a traditional part of the Chinese New Year celebration, as well as festivals and other special occasions. The lion dance is believed to bring peace and good fortune.

The lion dance continues to be a major element of Chinese culture. And as home to the most established Chinese lion dance school in the region, the Richardson area is the lion-dance-instruction headquarters of the metroplex.

Lions gather and dance to bring good fortune and prosperity to people and businesses. The different colors represent different characteristics the lions possess.

The J.K. Wong Kungfu Tai Chi Academy in Richardson specializes in teaching the colorful and light-hearted Southern Chinese Lion Dance. In the Southern Lion Dance, two dancers are clothed in bright costumes attached to a heavy papier-mache lion's head. With perfectly syncopated steps, the dancers mimic qualities attributed to the lion, including power, fear, and joy.

They also tell a story that starts with lions awakening in their cave searching for food. Along the way, the lions encounter obstacles, as well as happiness, and must make decisions that put them in peril, but ultimately land them treasures in such forms as lettuce (symbolizing fortune and prosperity) and oranges (symbolizing gold).

"Being a lion requires agility, strength, stamina," says Master Jimmy Wong, owner and master instructor at the J.K. Wong Kungfu Tai Chi Academy in Richardson. Mr. Wong expects his students to demonstrate these qualities. They must practice the dance at least once a week, in addition to their martial arts training and most importantly, keep their grades up.

They must also avoid drinking or smoking. But students don't seem to mind his requirements and look forward to the lion dance classes. The students, who range in age from 5 to just shy of 30, become the lion, once they dress in the lion costumes.

"A real lion is playful, sometimes you don't usually think of. (The lion dance) lets the dancers express themselves through the lion," says Mr. Wong.

He has seen lions take on a lighter or more serious attitude, depending on which two dancers are interpreting it. The drum and the gong players are also integral to the production. They must keep a perfect rhythm with the four-legged creature.

"It's an effort in teamwork," says Mr. Wong. Unlike soccer or football where one person can become a star, lion dance performances require the participation of the entire group to make it work, he says.

The Lion leaps across the obstacles displaying dynamic acrobatic feats in the lion dance performance. Dancers must be very skilled and have great trust in each other to achieve a high degree of performance.

"And it is a very acrobatic performance," says Mr. Wong. Because of its physical demands, the lion dance is not typically taught as an independent form. Instead, the lion dance is an art learned by advanced kungfu students as part of their training, he says.

"Dancers must have a strong body, hands and legs for a good dance," he says. "It's part of the training requirements."

Today, academies like the J.K. Wong Academy in Richardson are not only teaching students the steps to the lion dance, but also the universal idea that the dance can bring peace and harmony to those who understand and embrace it. And they do not have to be Chinese to appreciate it.

The Academy performs at community events and special occasions like weddings and birthdays, as well as at schools and primarily Chinese-owned businesses and restaurants.

There is also a growing interest in lion dancing as a sport by many American, European, and Asian martial arts schools. Competitions are being held around the world for lion dance teams, which Mr. Wong has brought his team to Malaysia and Hong Kong to compete, representing the United States.

In essence, students who learn lion dance also learn to appreciate Chinese culture and traditions, says Mr. Wong. "Lion dance is alive and striving in the west," he says. "It offers a source to understanding Asian culture and the contributions of Asian people to the community."


899 E Arapaho Rd, Richardson, TX 75081 | 214.878.4598 | jkwongacademy@gmail.com

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