The crashing of cymbals and the pounding of drums announce the brightly colored costumes. Animated lions, made up of a team of two men, make their way to an eager crowd. The most skilled know how to manipulate the features of the mask. Eyes flutter, nostrils flair, mouths open and close with a panting rhythm, and the body undulates causing its fur to accentuate the ornate ripples of the “skin.”
Lion dancing is a Chinese cultural art form steeped in symbolism and offered up to awe-struck audiences during Chinese New Year around the globe. For first timers, it may appear to be a fanciful show but lion dancing is performed by martial arts students with a minimum of three years of training and has a lineage that may go back as far as the third century.
Paul Tam is a sifu (see-foo) at CLF Kung Fu Club in Richmond, British Columbia. Sifu, he explains, is the Chinese word for teacher and father. Tam has been performing and instructing lion dances for over 30 years and approaches each student like his own son, as his title implies.
Respect is a strong thread that runs throughout lion dancing. At the beginning of each dance, lions bow to the seniors in the audience, and it is for older decade birthdays—60, 70, 80 and 90—that private lion dances are performed to celebrate longevity and wisdom. On a person’s 100th birthday, they receive a dragon dance as the dragon is considered one of the highest spiritual animals in Chinese culture.
Dragon dances can also be experienced during Chinese New Year. Modern groups are made up of about nine dancers and form a line like a snake, but more traditional troupes are from 14 to 30 people and each dragon can be from 100 to 200 feet long.
The most sacred dances are reserved for private functions. Businesses may request a dragon dance to bless their store, weddings may include a lion dance to bless a marriage and white lions may perform a somber ritual at funerals.
According to Tam, many lion and dragon dances are a respectful tradition that must be earned and, due to the intricate foot work and subtle movements, if performed wrong could take on an entirely different meaning than intended.
Tam hopes that, with the passing of the torch, young people will seek to understand the powerful nuances of the dance, perform them with reverence and continue to pass on this beautiful Chinese tradition for generations to come.