Lion dance training at the Chua Co Lam Buddhist temple in South Seattle. Photo credit: Bao Nguyen.
Lion dance training at the Chua Co Lam Buddhist temple in South Seattle. Photo credit: Bao Nguyen.

For nearly two thousand years, one of the most iconic symbols of Lunar New Year has been the lion dance. The belief that it brings blessings of luck, prosperity and happiness also makes this folk art an important addition to festivities like weddings and grand openings. Because of the strength, agility, and movement skills required, lion dancing has been closely linked with Chinese martial arts throughout its history and, even today, the vast majority of performers are from martial arts schools, particularly kung-fu.

However, my first introduction to this wonderful hobby 12 years ago wasn’t at a kung-fu club and my instructor wasn’t called a “sifu” (Chinese for “master”). Instead, my first lesson took place at a local youth group and I called my teacher “anh” (Vietnamese for “older brother”), who insisted that his students – all 5 of us at the time — learn lion dance as a performing art.

It didn’t occur to me then that I was taking up an art form, much less continuing a tradition that has been around for a couple millennia. All I wanted was to get in the lion costume and jump around. When my instructor spent entire practices just to make sure we hold the lion head correctly – elbows out, legs in horse stance, back straight and slightly forward – I didn’t make the connection. When he referred to us as a dance troupe instead of a team, I didn’t understand.

To be fair, my teacher was not a martial artist and did not learn or practice lion dance as a way to hone kung-fu skills. Rather, he approached it like someone looking to learn ballroom dancing or ballet or even break dancing. He studied the history to find meaning in the dance. He studied the techniques so he could perform. Finally, he did what I feel is at the core of every art form; he used his creativity to express himself through the art of lion dancing.

He often said to me, “When you’re out there performing, you’re expressing your personality and telling a story to the audience.” Isn’t that what performing artists do?

But it should also be known that lion dancing did not have its origins in martial arts either. Lions are actually not native to China. The animal was introduced to the country by way of the Silk Road when trading relations were being established with Persia. Lions were given as tributes but because of their rarity and difficulty to handle, few were able to see them. It was from there that lion dancing, with the purpose of imitating the real animal’s characteristics, became a substitute.

Through the years, the art naturally became steeped in conventions and myths. Like the general public, I used to think that lion dancing was just something people do to celebrate important events. It is that … and so much more!

Although I played musical instruments in school, it was not with any sense of being creative; I merely played notes on sheets of paper and was judged on how well I played as it “should” be played. But when I learned the instruments of lion dancing (drum, gong, and cymbals), I was able to make music with them and when I got inside the lion costume, I was able to create a story and expressed it to the audience. I became an artist.

I am excited to see that lion dancing is experiencing tremendous growth here and elsewhere. When I first stepped onto the scene, there were only two or three teams actively performing around Seattle. Now there are at least nine teams helping to preserve this art and not all of them are based in martial arts.

So during this Lunar New Year, as you are enjoying the lion dance performances, remind yourself that the dancers and musicians are all artists who spent hours upon hours perfecting their routine to tell a few minutes of story. Clap and cheer just a little harder for them, won’t you?

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