Updated: Feb 3
New vlog on Lion Dance!
Lion dancing is performed during auspicious occasions to chase away evil spirits and welcome prosperous times. Traditionally, it was performed by male martial artists incorporating movements displaying strength, skill, endurance, and artistry. In addition to providing good fortune and entertainment, lion dancing is used as a training tool for martial artists to condition their bodies and increase martial power. It is often performed during Chinese New Year, festivals, weddings, or the grand opening of a new business.
As performers know all too well, the lion dance is often mistaken for dragon dance or misheard as line dance (folk dancing with European and American roots). Lion dancing is performed by two people - one handling the head and the other acting as the tail. The dragon is operated by many performers holding poles linked to sections of the dragon. The longer the dragon, the more luck it brings. Both dances are often performed during Chinese New Year and more recently, during the Gregorian New Year.
Lion dancing is accompanied by percussionists playing a drum, cymbals, and gong. The music helps the lion scare away evil spirits and anyone with a general aversion to loud sounds. In some traditions, the cymbals and gong players follow the drummer and the drummer directs the lion's movements. Nowadays, many drummers follow the lion’s movements. In some traditions, lion dancers would begin their training as percussionists to develop a more complete understanding of the art and to work their way up to playing the coveted roles of the lion.
The lion is sometimes escorted by a Happy Buddha wearing a smiling mask and monk’s robe. Oftentimes, a pillow is placed under the robe to create a more Buddha-like figure. The Buddha is a comical character who interacts with the crowd while teasing and leading the lion with the fan. His movements can include martial arts or acrobatic techniques. (Glen Doyle)
Northern & Southern Styles
Lion dancing has a long history with regions having distinct styles, designs, and customs. Lion dancing is categorized into two main styles - northern and southern. Northern lions have shaggy orange or red hair, a gold face, and a red (male) or green (female) bow on top of its head. The performances are more acrobatic and involve rolling, lifts, jumping, climbing, and balancing on a ball.
Southern lions have larger eyes (to more easily spot evil spirits), a mirror on the forehead (to ward against demons), and a horn on the top (to please the gods). (dancefacts.net) The performances tend to display the temperament of the lion and the power manifestation of the dancers. Cat-like actions such as scratching, shaking, and licking are emphasized and the performances can often be comical. Common lion colors and their representations are: gold (vitality), red (courage), green (friendship and goodwill). White bearded lions are older and wiser and tend to move slower. Black bearded lions are younger, more energetic, and aggressive.
YMAA & Lion Dance
Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming grew up in Hsinchu, Taiwan and learned martial arts and lion dance from his first teacher, Grandmaster Cheng. Grandmaster Cheng taught his students the art of making the lion as well as the dance. The construction process was training in itself due to the strength and skill required to bend the rattan cane into the shape of a lion head.
Grandmaster Cheng trained his students to perform lion dance with southern White Crane style and flavor, which emphasizes jing (martial power) training using the waist. To increase the lion’s weight, bells were added to the cloth making up the body. According to Dr. Yang, in those days the lions about 5 times heavier than today’s lions. A training goal was to see if one’s shaking jing could reach the bells. Modern lion heads are generally too delicate to withstand excessive shaking. Due to the strength, endurance, and athleticism required to handle the head, the head performer was the stronger of the two. As one of the younger and smaller students, Dr. Yang was always the tail.
Being a Buddhist, Grandmaster Cheng would take his team to Taoyuan’s annual festival celebrating Buddha’s birthday. Dr. Yang recalls squeezing 15 people, a lion, and a drum on a truck and hauling into town. Each of the students would take turns performing.
1986 - YMAA Boston [VIDEO]
Performers: Alex Kiesel (head), others unknown
This is the earliest footage of lion dancing from the YMAA Boston archive. The performance is probably the closest to resembling what the traditional training entailed - stamina, endurance, and strength to maintain low stances, rooting, jumps, and head-waving. The routine has a mix of footwork in low stances and tricks. The lion also displays a vital spirit and playful personality.
1997 - Tai Chi Farm (Warwick, NY) [VIDEO]
Performers: James Yang (head), Cain Sanderson (tail), Phil Goldman (Buddha)
Tidbit: James was so exhausted after the demo that he practically collapsed as he exited. Master Jou, Tsung Hwa then grabbed him back so he could introduce him and said, “This is Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming’s son!” James’ hands were so cramped that he unintentionally gave a thumbs up.
1997 - YMAA Boston [VIDEO]
Performers: James Yang (head), Cain Sanderson (tail)
Tidbits: Cain (tail) forgot he was supposed to hold James (head) up for one part, which is why the lion collapses in a snail-like form. (Recalled by Nicholas Yang)
Also, Jon was part of this demo as a 10 year old!
1998 - Tai Chi Farm (Warwick, NY) [VIDEO]
Performers: James Yang (head), Mike Orlandella (tail), Phil Goldman (Buddha), Andrew Murray (drummer), and Tracy Stouck (gong)
2002 - YMAA 20th Anniversary [VIDEO]
Performers: Simon Pang (head), George Dominguez (tail)
Tidbit: This is the “Highway lion” (unofficial name). A few Boston students drove to New York to purchase a lion but failed to secure well in their truck. At some point on the highway, they looked in the mirror and it was gone! They backtracked for a while and miraculously found the lion undamaged, picked it up and continued on their way.
At the beginning and end of the performance, the lion will bow three times to represent heaven, earth, and human. If there is a significant person in the audience, the lion will also bow three times to the individual.
In the Sleeping Lion segment, the lion starts feeling drowsy, stumbles around, and falls asleep. Another variation is Drunken Lion. (liondrake.wordpress.com) This is when the performers get a reprieve! Sometimes a flea will irritate the lion and it wakes up briefly before falling back to sleep. In some of our YMAA demos, it’s the drumming or cymbal player that disturbs the lion’s slumber. Eventually, the lion wakes up for good and begins to groom itself with licking and scratching.
There’s a particular body part that receives grooming attention and we’re not certain if this is typical of most lion dances or a tradition unique to YMAA. It traces back to the 1986 YMAA Boston demo.
Sometimes the performance will include the traditional custom of cai qing (採青), which means "plucking the greens." Lettuce, another vegetable, or fruit will be tied together with a red envelope containing a monetary reward. The lion has to reach the prize, “eat” the greens and “spit” it out, but keep the red envelope. The spitting of the greens signifies the lion spreading wealth and good luck. Traditionally, the greens were hung from high places and required exceptional martial arts skills to access. The larger the monetary sum, the greater the challenge.
If multiple martial arts schools appeared at the same festival, the lions would sometimes fight to earn the prize. The fights were intended to be civilized with the dancers using stylistic lion movements and creativity rather than barbaric street fighting. As the school’s reputations were at stake, the fights could be highly competitive and even violent. In modern times, the lion dance is more of a sport-oriented activity. (newworldencyclopedia.org)
Barking Rabbit’s Lion Dance History
We’re fortunate to have had many opportunities to include lion dance in our martial arts training.
In the ‘90s and early aughts, we performed for local organizations including: ACCE (Andover Chinese Cultural Exchange), GBCCA (Greater Boston Chinese Cultural Association), Boston Children’s Museum, Andover High School’s Asian & Martial Arts clubs, Andover/North Andover YMCA, and Pinkerton Academy. YMAA Andover has also performed for two YMAA weddings.
2011 - Wedding
Performers: Sully Donahue (head), Alex Yeo (tail), Tara McKenzie (head), Piper Curtis (tail), Nicholas Yang (drum), James Yang (gong), Michelle Lin (cymbals)
2012 - GBCCA Annual Banquet
Performers: Michelle Lin (head), Jamey Lachiana (tail)
2013 - Wedding
Performers: Michelle Lin (head), Alain Haddad (tail), Kasey Walko (drum)
In 2012, Disco lion and the original YMAA Boston drum were loaded into a truck to make a week-long cross country journey with Dr. Yang, Nicky, and Jon. After 3 years of hibernation, Disco lion was called back into action. We began coaching Quentin and Piper for local demos and the annual BBQ demo.
2015 - Humboldt State University
Performers: Quentin Lopes (head), Piper Chan (tail), Michelle Lin (drum)
2018 - YMAA Retreat Center Graduation Demo
With Piper out due to injury, Jon stepped in to perform with Quentin. They used Quentin’s natural abilities to create a routine full of jumps. Their lion personality was inspired by the sometimes indifferent nature of Xiao Hu.
Performers: Quentin Lopes (head), Jonathan Chang (tail), Michelle Lin (drum),
2020 - CAAL Lunar New Year Gala
On January 11, 2020, Barking Rabbit opened the CAAL Lunar New Year Gala. It was Michelle’s first time in 6 years ago and Barking Rabbit’s first time performing lion dance together.
Performers: Michelle Lin (head), Jonathan Chang (tail), R.D. (drum), S.D. (cymbals)
Students & YMAA schools - please share your lion dance videos!
We wish everyone a happy and prosperous Chinese New Year!
Resources (retrieved January, 2020)