Once upon a time, there was once a village in ancient China that lived peacefully, deep in the woods. The one day, a lion roamed into the area around the village. Day after day, the lion terrorized the villagers, threatening to eat them. At first the villagers did not know what to do. Some believed that they should try to kill the lion; some believed such a dangerous hunt will result in casualties. Eventually, the villagers decided not to kill the lion but to try and scare it off by becoming “bigger” than the lion. They all banded together, with some of the villagers wearing lion costumes and the others banging pots and pans to make noise. This was the very first lion dance.
The ploy worked and the lion left the area, with a newfound fear for human beings. During its travels, the lion came across an old monastery where a lone Buddhist monk lived. The lion, now hungry from wandering and being scared off, decided to attack the monk in desperation.
The serene holy man made no move to defend himself and the lion stopped. The monk offered the lion food and company. After a few days, he instructed the lion to go back to the village and to protect it. By doing so, the people changed their opinions about the lion and in time, they all lived in peace.
Today, the lion represents a creature of nobility and courage. The lion dance which is a major part of important ceremonies like weddings and birthdays, is done to scare off evil spirits that might try to bring bad luck to those attending. The lion dance is most prominent during lunar new year when it was vital to protect the people for the entire year.
Lion dancing is one of the most difficult dances to master. Dancers are often very physically fit and have good coordination as they need to run around with their visions limited but still perform stunts that involve throwing people around.
A traditional lion troupe consists of two dancers to one lion; a head and a tail. There is usually a backup team for each primary team. And then there are the drum, the cymbals, and the gong. Like all dances, the point is to match movements to the beat of the music. Lion dance music often changes the tempo depending on the moves being performed. The easiest move is to move around the crowds and jerk the heads at the onlookers. More intermediate moves include the head dancer standing on the knee of the tail dancers and lifting the head to give the lion height or doing a somersault flip with the entire lion. Advanced dancers have coordination to do such things like throwing the head up, doing a back flip, and then catch the falling head.
During the Cultural Revolution in China, Chairman Mao attempted to destroy all traces Chinese tradition including the art of Kung Fu. He failed in part that lion dancers often incorporate Kung Fu into their dance, ensuring that the art lives on. Many of the basic forms of lion dance are also Kung Fu forms. The tradition of incognito practice of martial arts also persevered in America. In the International District in Seattle, the early Chinese Triads opened lion dance schools as fronts for their illegal business where they taught their members Kung Fu through lion dance.
Lion dancing has always been a way to connect with thousands of years of culture. It is just one of the many traditions from the world’s oldest empire.