Chinese Lunar New Year marks the beginning of Spring and the arrival of the biggest festival in the Chinese calendar. Here in Malaysia, the culmination of this festive atmosphere is accompanied by the clanging of brass cymbals and pounding of drums that accompany the lion dance. This energetic and jubilant display of athleticism is an integral part of the celebration.
Dressed in an ornate regalia, two performers take the form of the head and the body, displaying immense acrobatic skills in playing the agile lion. Accompanied by rhythmic cymbals and drums, they dance to the beat by mimicking the movements of a lion in perfect body movements while performing various acts. In Malaysia, the lion dance is often performed during Chinese New Year celebration as well as at significant occasions such as the opening of a new enterprise or during auspicious celebrations.
Historians believe lion dance began in the late Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) when lions from Central Asia were brought to Northern China as gifts for the emperor and representations of the majestic beast began to be assimilated into the traditional local performances. By 618 AD, the performances evolved into a distinguished art form and was regularly performed at the imperial courts.
Lion dancing spread across China and developed regional distinct characteristics that are still associated with the styles of the dance in present day. The lesser-known style of the Northern dance often features the show of a pair of lions, male and female, with heavier shaggy costumes.
The Southern style, which is much more popular, grew somewhat into a more acrobatic performances incorporating martial arts elements, featuring gargantuan costumes with bright, bold colours. The Southern variety has several signature features such as a mirror between the eyes to scare away malevolent spirits, a horn in the forehead to fight evil as well as red ribbons for luck and to pay respect to the gods.
Lion Dance in Malaysia
The lion dance in Malaysia, as with the rest of Southeast Asia, is the Southern lion dance from Guangdong province. The art form travelled to Malaya over a century ago, and it has been listed as a national cultural heritage in 2007.
More than just an artistic tradition, the remarkable lion dance evolved to become a sport-oriented activity. Lion dance became popular in the 1970s in Malaysia, with master teachers from China coming over to train young local enthusiasts.
The dance has evolved beyond being a Chinese cultural art form into an acrobatic sport participated by people of all races and cultures, championing etiquette, grace and discipline as it is about culture. There are now multiple lion dancing schools in Malaysia training youths from all races and from all over the world.
The Anatomy of the Lion and the Dance
Each lion head is carefully hand-crafted with rattan or bamboo bent into a frame before paper is wrapped around the frame and painted with intricate designs. The final product takes the form of a fearsome lion’s head with eyes that blink and a mouth that moves to ensure the lion can clearly convey various emotions, such as happiness, anger and sadness. Copious amount of fur and other lush adornments add to the mystery.
As for the troupe, while the dancers are generally the stars of the show, the drummer, gong players and cymbal players are integral members who complete the set-up. The drums, gongs and cymbals must beat in unison, and the lion has to be in sync with the music.
The lion dance performance traditionally ushers in prosperity and repels bad fortune. The lion carries out different routines, depending on the occasion. During the Lunar New Year, the lion peels Mandarin oranges, a symbol for gold to present the symbol of good fortune. For competitions, the performance may depict a lion climbing a high mountain (wooden poles as high as 10 feet tall) or playing with water to show off the dancers’ acrobatic skills in dancing on high poles and across water.
Malaysia Championing Lion Dance
Malaysia is one of the world’s leading nations for lion dancing. There are approximately 1,000 traditional dance troupes in the country, with around 30 teams specialising in the acrobatic category. The choreography and acrobatic skills for the lion dance performance in Malaysia grew exponentially from 1980s, when lion dance competitions were introduced. Malaysia organised the first international lion dance invitational in 1983 and the first World Lion Dance Championship was held in 1994.
Today the competition is the premier competition for troupes from all over the. The 2016 edition attracted 39 teams from 15 countries, including Hong Kong, Indonesia, Vietnam, the US, France, Australia and Chile.
The competition became not just a duel arena but also a learning symposium for the performers to improve their skills. The performance art grew from a cultural event for one community into a global sport, breaking the cultural taboos with a richer and more inclusive experience.