Roar hard, fly high: Dancing into the Year of the Dragon

Photo by Jiratchaya Piamkulvanic

With the 2024 Lunar New Year coming up, the Vancouver Chinese Lion & Dragon Dance Association is preparing to bring the Chinese community prosperity and luck with their lion and dragon dance. This year, the team will deliver public performances between Feb. 3 to 19 throughout the Greater Vancouver area.

Behind the success of these performances is Eugenia Chau, the coach and founder of the Vancouver Chinese Lion & Dragon Dance Team. She began to dive into this art form more than 20 years ago, driven back then by the colourful and fun animal mimicry that characterizes these dances. While her passion for the lion and dragon dance is still going strong up to this day, her reason for performing the dance has expanded into something bigger.

“I want to let other people know and learn about our culture, heritage and the meaning and symbolism of the dance, so they will have a better understanding and celebrate our holiday together,” says Chau.

Rising from the history

Chau explains that both lions and dragons are important creatures in Chinese history. Whereas the dragon symbolizes authority and the emperor, the lion – specifically the lion dance – has many origin stories. The one that Chau likes the most took place in ancient times when a god sent down the lion to protect the villagers from a monster called ‘Nian’ that had been eating all their crops every year.

“After that, the villagers made a costume to mimic the lion,” says Chau. “They used bamboo and papier mâché to make the frame of the lion. They also used firecrackers, drums, cymbals and gongs to make loud noises to scare the monster away.”

Fast forward to today, the lion and dragon dance is performed during special events, including the Lunar New Year, to provide luck and protection from evil spirits. The association usually performs the lion dance on birthdays and wedding days, while the dragon dance appears more at larger events.

Bringing the creatures to life

The number of performers needed for each dance differs. The lion dance involves two people, each embodying the movement of the head and the tail. On the contrary, the number of performers for the dragon dance varies, depending on the length of the dragon’s body. It can be as long as 18 metres and therefore can require up to nine performers. Chau says this is where challenges arise.

“There are some lifting and acrobatic moves involved in the lion dance. Also, for the dragon dance, there are different positions and each person will have to know where they have to stand exactly for different poses and movements,” explains Chau. “So, that will be challenging just to make sure everyone can be there to practice at the same time, learn different individual parts and work together as a team.”

The ages of the performers at the Vancouver Chinese Lion & Dragon Dance Association are also very diverse. Chau says that the team has performers from as young as seven up to around 60 years old. Many of them see the lion and dragon dance as a great opportunity for them to exercise and learn about the culture. Howard Hui, a 60-year-old born in Hong Kong, is one of the senior performers at the association who shares this sentiment.

“One good thing is that it is a kind of exercise,” says Hui. “I also like Chinese culture a lot. I like to dig deep into the meaning of what the lion dance is, what the dragon dance is and what they are for. It’s very interesting because every move has its own meaning. It’s not just a dance.”

Roaring for the people

Chau explains that each of the two performances aim to showcase different kinds of stories, including through different types of movement.

The Vancouver Chinese Lion and Dragon Dance Association is bringing creatures and their folklore to life for Lunar New Year. | Photo by Jiratchaya Piamkulvanic

“For the dragon dance, it’s normally to show how the dragon is going to move and float around. The performance has both powerful and slow parts to make the dragon look alive,” says Chau.

On the other hand, the lion dance that Chau and her team perform normally follows a story of the lion waking up and searching for food. Therefore, the audience at the store or the event will have to prepare some lettuce for the hesitant lion to eat.

“The lion is scared of whether the food is poisonous or safe, so the lion will eat it and spit it back out,” says Chau. “But because the word ‘lettuce’ rhymes with the word ‘prosperity,’ you want to catch the lettuce to catch the prosperity and good luck for the coming year.”

This interaction with the audience ends up being one of the most memorable moments Chau has about the lion performance. People sometimes get creative with the food they prepare for the lion, and Chau recalls seeing them tie spinach to a long rope or mix lettuce with carrots and other vegetables. The most striking one, however, is what she called the ‘live lettuce.’

“There was a store putting up a washbasin with water with live crab and fish swimming in there, and then they put the lettuce and the red envelope on top. So we have to get the lettuce from the basin. But then when the kid [who was the performer] was getting it, the crab suddenly moved its claws,” she says.

Hui’s favorite part is also being able to perform in front of the audience. He says that practicing inside the studio and doing a live performance are totally different.

“You have the audience cheering for you. And the music is so ripened and exciting, so everybody’s getting excited and laughing,” says Hui. “For one performance we performed in front of the seniors at a senior home and they were so happy with it. When they smiled, you know that we did a good job.”

For more information on their upcoming Lunar New Year performances, visit: www.vclda.com

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