26 May 2014
Sunday night was the final segment of the Penang International Lion Dance on Stilts Competition. This is a HUGE deal around here - competing groups come from mainland China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Vietnam, as well as all over Malaysia.
A little background - Lion Dancing is a Chinese tradition, and developed into two distinct different types of costume and dance, divided into the north and south styles. The southern type of Lion Dancing eventually was brought to SE Asia by the various waves of Chinese conquests, migrations, and immigrations.
And in SE Asia, the real measure of a Lion Dance is the acrobatic skill in dancing on stilts - not stilts like sticks, but more like tall metal poles with a small platform on top. Tall stanchions. Imagine a wide metal pipe with a small metal square on top - these are the stilts used in Lion Dancing. (The small metal square is barely 30 cm, or 12 inches, square. Really small. Hardly big enough for two feet to stand on it.)
Lion Dancing on Stilts is promoted in Malaysia as both a cultural heritage and a healthy sport. And considering the acrobatic nature of this tradition, it definitely qualifies as a sport!
The "stilts" range from roughly 1 meter high (3 feet 3 inches) to roughly 2.5 or 3 meters - that's 7.5 to 9.75 feet!!!
Okay, so we got a taxi out to Han Chiang Stadium, which turns out to be the gymnasium at Han Chiang school. The place is packed! We paid our 5 ringgit admission and went in; the woman handed us a program and apologized that it was only in Chinese, but I told her we'd enjoy the pictures. An usher pointed out some empty bleachers, and we went to sit at the far end of the gym.
We brought our dinner with us, but it turned out there was food for sale, although it was mostly junk food so we were glad to have our sandwiches and water. And there was a wait between each performance, plenty of time to eat and not miss any action.
So, the sequence - first, the lion dancers get their costumes on, minus the head and body. They test the sequencing of the stilts - it's important that the varying heights are the same distance apart and in the same sequence as what they've used for practice. They spend quite a bit of time adjusting and moving around the stilts, and making sure the cushions are placed under and around all the stilts. (Last year, one dancer was blinded by the flash photography, and slipped and fell from 2.5 meters - not good! I made sure my camera was set with the flash off!)
Then the team gathers with their band, and their national flag. Our neighbours were nice about identifying flags for us - we only recognized the flags of Malaysia and Indonesia, since we haven't been to the other countries yet.
The team parades around while everyone cheers, and the members of the team are introduced. The band members - drummers, cymbal and gong players - go off to one side where they've set up their instruments, and the dancers don head gear and body cover. There are two dancers per lion, one in front and one in back. The back guy is the strength of the animal, since he lifts the front guy some of the time.
And they are off, dancing and acting as lion-like as they can.
Then the team gathers and waits for the judges' scores, and the crowd cheers if they agree with the scores, or boos if they disagree. And it didn't seem to matter if the team had many supporters in the audience or not, the crowd really cheered for teams that did well, and had lukewarm applause for mediocre teams.
Between performances, while waiting for the next team to adjust the stilts and get ready, people would visit with friends, talk, go get more food, or pose with the lion head masks waiting to be used. The little kids were wonderful - some children were afraid of the masks and wouldn't get too near to them. Others weren't intimidated, and just wanted to pet the lions, much to their parents' chagrin. It was very funny to watch.
The dance seemed to have certain components that possibly were required, or are just considered necessary parts of the dance.
First, there's a creative entrance or climbing up on the stilts. Some people dance around a bit and then jump onto the stilts, beginning with the shortest set. Others jump onto a higher set, front person first and then back person swinging around. Others have the lion act fearful and reticent, while others are brave lions who stand up on the hind legs and jump right up onto those stilts.
There's the dancing part, which seems to include acting kittenish more than like a lion - dancing back and forth on varying stilt heights, prancing on top of the stilts in time to the music. One dancer often jumps partway down a set of stilts while the other dancer holds him, so the lion looks like he's leaning down over the stilt.
And again, sometimes one dancer will hold the other and swing his end of the lion around in a swoop, sort of like the lion is doing a pirouette.
The lions always stand up, back person holding up the front person, who uses his legs to look like the front paws of the lion. The lion also turns around, backtracks, and does some fancy footwork for the other half of the audience.
And the lion always manages to crouch down and to a few kitty moves - scratching ears with each back foot. Wiggling his back end like he's ready to attack his prey.
There's also always a time when the lion dances with a prop - maybe the lion brings the prop and places it on a stand, or maybe the prop is set up ahead of time. At any rate, the lion often eats the prop, or plays with it (a hula hoop on a foot, a balloon in the mouth, whatever) and then throws the prop onto the floor.
And when the lion finally gets to the tallest stanchion, somehow the front and back end people get all four feet on that little square. Or the lion stands up. Something worthy of applause, because this is the literal height of their performance.
Some more lion dancing and playing, and the lion dances his way back to the shorter stilts.
And then, the dismount - as everyone in any gymnastics competition knows, the dismount is just as important.
So some teams jump off in unison from a middle height stilt. Others jump one at a time, or the front person jumps and pivots while the rear person swings around and off the stilts.
But my favourite was the Indonesian team - the front person somehow held onto the square platform with his toes, the back person vaulted feet first over his back, and then the front person flipped - so the illusion was that the lion was turning a somersault to flip off of the stilts! Wow, amazing!!!
According to what I've read, the colour of the lion corresponds to the age of the lion - a black lion is considered to be the youngest, and thus should act that way. A white lion is the oldest, and so the performers should display that age in their dance. The red and yellow lions are in the middle, and so the performance reflects that.
The colours also indicate the personalities of the lions, although my sources seemed rather contradictory in terms of what kind of personality each colour represented.
At any rate, this was one of the more exciting events we've been to, and it really was fun to be part of a big crowd cheering on these teenagers!
We didn't stay until the end, it was raining and we found someone to call a taxi for us so we just left. We don't know who won.
But WOW, what an interesting, exciting cultural event to attend! One of the coolest things we've gone to in a long time!!!