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For Lion Dancers, Lunar New Year Marks Culmination Of A Year's Work

Most people see the lion dance, at most, once a year on Lunar New Year. But for the dancers, the art is no occasional matter. Whether they practice the Chinese style or another version of the popular Asian dance, they practice year-round to perfect their moves for their annual performances.

Learning To ‘Embody The Spirit Of The Animal’

Credit Neil Giardino
This is one of the dance team's lion masks.

In the basement of a Vietnamese Buddhist temple in Seattle’s Rainier neighborhood, tamed lions perform, driving away evil spirits every week. They’re not real lions, of course, but it’s easy to forget about the nimble performers underneath the costume of bamboo, fur and papier mâché.    

“When a performer dons the costume, he or she has to embody the spirit of the animal in order to accurately portray its movements and expressions,” said Bao Nguyen, director of the Lieu Quan Lion Dance Team.

Nguyen has trained the dancers since 2007, and it’s a position he’s good at. Compassionate yet exacting, he demands that his teammates be stewards of the ancient art. Under his direction, it all comes down to fitness.

“A lion dance involves so much physical activity, and our performers have to be in top physical shape,” he said.

In addition to their weekly practices, Nguyen also requires his team to perform strength- and stamina-building exercises at home.

‘The Performers Lose Themselves In The Act’

On a recent Sunday evening, the team was in high gear, preparing for the dozens of shows they'll perform over a span of a few days. According to Nguyen, his team will eat, sleep and breathe lion dancing during those days. To do so, they must focus and practice.

Credit Neil Giardino
Members of the Lieu Quan Lion Dance Team are gathered for practice.

“When we are here,” Nguyen said, “we focus entirely on our routine, and we work as a team.” 

And teamwork is critical to success. Each performance, even with a single lion, requires a minimum of eight performers. Two performers choreograph the lion’s movements; one maneuvers the head and the other operates the hind legs and tail. Percussionists, Nguyen among them, provide the pulsating rhythms of the drums, gongs and cymbals that rouse the lion.

Finally, the “Dai Tao Fut,” or Big-headed Buddha, plays its own unique role in the dance. In lion dance mythology, this figure maintains its own distinct movements, and is credited for taming the lion with his red belt.

“It’s a mentally- and physically-taxing performance, but when done right, the performers lose themselves in the act,” said Nguyen. “We act a lot like a sports team. We practice together, have good times together and help each other out.”

The Lion A Symbol Of Strength

The lion is a symbol of strength in Asian cultures. Once roused, it heralds joy, prosperity and good luck by exorcising evil from homes and businesses. 

In return for this spiritual cleansing, the lion receives offerings of lettuce, a symbol of fortune, as well as red envelopes containing cash donations for the lion dancing teams. Red is a symbol of good luck, and is also thought to ward off evil spirits.

The Dance's Roots In Kung Fu

Though dance teams like Nguyen's practice the art, lion dancing is traditionally performed by kung fu practitioners. It is the dancers' knowledge of kung fu movements, some claim, that allows the lion to take on such expressive qualities.

Some of those dancers call Seattle’s Northwest Kung Fu and Fitness home. 

Credit Neil Giardino
Carol Leong poses next to a lion mask.

“Our school’s philosophy is to maintain the kung fu tradition of the lion dance. We want to keep these old traditions alive. It’s very important to us,” said David Leong, the studio’s “sifu,” or master.

The dancers even hold their costumes dear. Carol Leong, the sifu's sister, described them as one might a loved one. 

“We take care of them. When they are injured, we repair them and we clean them. They’re not only performance objects to us, but extensions of our school, our kung fu style and our sifu,” she said.

During a recent practice session, a diverse group of more than 20 students rehearsed lion dancing to the accompaniment of live percussion. Like the LQ Lion Dance Team, they were preparing for many upcoming Lunar New Year events.

For the studio's dancers, the performances are a culmination of hard work and training they do all year.

“We don’t take time off during the year and pick it up a few weeks before the performance; it’s 365 days a year we’re doing this,” said Carol Leong.

Related story: What To Eat On Lunar New Year And Why