Monday, February 26, 2018

Dancing With The Lions

26 February 2018

We've encountered lion dancing all around Kuala Lumpur this month!  And lion dancing is one of my favorite cultural events in Malaysia!!!

Very brief history - lion dancing began in China, and eventually developed into two distinct kinds of dancing and costumes, divided into the north and south styles.  The southern style of lion dancing was eventually brought to SE Asia via the various invasions, migrations, and immigrations from China.  

Apparently Malaysia is well known for lion dancing, especially since the ten-time international world champions in lion dancing came from this country.  Students from across SE Asia come to Malaysia to learn this skill.  Lion dancing truly caught hold in Malaysia, and became an important part of the culture, especially for celebrating the new year.  (I'll include more information at the end.)

This year, we discovered that there are two forms of lion dancing here: the lion dance walk around, when the lions and musicians dance on a level surface, such as at a mall; and the acrobatic lion dancing, or dancing on stilts. 

Richard and I saw the international lion dancing competition when we were up north on the island of Penang in 2014.  If you want to see lion dancing on stilts, here's the link:
 So, for this new year celebration, I've seen the lion dancing walk around at the Central Market twice.  The first time, I went deliberately to see this, and ended up standing on the stairs to get a decent view.  But the second time, I was happily painting batiks when I heard the music.  I asked the ladies working in the shop if there was lion dancing that day, and they said yes - and not to bother walking into the market to see them, the dancers would come down to our end of the market.  So I waited, and was able to have a nearly front row view when the lion dancers started at our end.  It was WONDERFUL!!!  The "lion" ate an offering of fruit and left the orange peels behind.  He also tried some lettuce but spit it out all over the floor.  (It was pretty funny!)

Yesterday, Sunday, we woke up to lion dancing music - it's pretty distinctive, the pounding drum with periodic cymbal clashes and a gong every so often.  We quickly dressed and went down to the patio outside the dining room, but couldn't much, just some people in red and yellow down at the corner of the street.  So I went down to the street level, and walked quickly to the corner on our side - and sure enough, there were two lions, one red and one black, dancing away as a crowd began to gather around them!  I watched for a bit, then went back up for brekkie.  When we got back to our room, we could see the lions dancing on the top floor of a building across the street, where someone seemed to be having a big party for the new year celebrations.

Then today!  We went out to the hospital for Richard's physical therapy session, and then went for lunch downstairs.  All of a sudden, there was that familiar drum and cymbal music, and I went running out to the lobby in time to see two lions getting into a service elevator with all of the musicians!  I'm not sure where they went, but I went back to my soup.  Maybe 15 minutes later, the music started up again, so I raced back out and the lions were dancing their way down the hall toward the lobby, with little kids waving at them or hiding their faces, depending on the bravery of the child.  Lion dancers at the hospital!  How amazing is that!!!

Rather than me telling you all about lion dancing, here's some information from the Langkawi Gazette.  (Langkawi is a gorgeous island off northwestern Malaysia.)

"The origins of the lion dance are linked closely to the origins of the Chinese New Year celebrations. It is said that in ancient times, a mythological creature known as Nian terrorised China and devoured its people on the eve of the new year. The only animal that managed to wound this beast was the lion. Thus, in an attempt to frighten the beast, the villagers decided to mimic the lion with lions made of cloth.

"In accordance with this legend, the dance is believed to usher good fortune, as well as ward off evil spirits. The lion dance calls for perfect co-ordination, elegance and nerves of steel.

"Two dancers are usually needed to give life to a "lion" - one to control the movements of the head, eyes and mouth; the other to act as the body. The first dancer that controls the head determines the movements, while the second must work in tandem with him.

"This isn't a simple task as the lion's head, which is brilliantly adorned with feathers, fur and glitter, weighs from 9kg to 15kg, a considerably heavy burden to hold aloft while moving vigorously. The head is usually constructed of papier mache and bamboo, complete with eyes that blink and a mouth that snaps. Therefore, the first dancer must have perfect co-ordination inspite of the burden.

"The dancers are usually enticed with gifts, usually ang pow (money in red packets) attached to a vegetable, which are tied to a pole. The pole is then placed at a door or a window. The dancers would then try to get these gifts, making it look as though the lion devours them. Often, the lion dancers are accompanied by two other masked dancers who act as jokers, provoking the lion; the dance is commonly performed to the beat of the tagu (Chinese drum) and the clanging of cymbals.

"In Malaysia, troupes of lion dancers travelling from one place to another in trucks are a common sight during the 15-day period of Chinese New Year. They are usually hired to perform at individual homes and business premises such as hotels and shopping complexes during this auspicious period.

"However, it is not unusual to see it outside of the new year season for it is also in demand among the Chinese community for ceremonies such as the launch of new business premises or for the welcoming of dignitaries. Lately, the dance has become a form of sport where dancers from all over the world compete to determine the best."

Last note, and then lots of photos - there's a wonderful movie about the two men who rose to become the world champion lion dancers, representing Malaysia.  It's called "The Great Lion" and if you get a chance, see it!  Really a wonderful movie, and from the viewpoint of the team members.  

Enjoy the excitement of the lions!