LION dances have been in Malaysia for such a long time that it would be hard to picture Chinese New Year celebrations without seeing at least one.
Lion dances are enjoyed by people of all ethnic groups and most of us are familiar with it.
However, it is still important to learn more about lion dance today and its origins, lest it loses its cultural significance over time.
This week, StarMetro spoke to Malaysia Khuan Loke Dragon and Lion Dance Association chief instructor Albert Fong, who has been performing and teaching lion dance in several countries for more than 28 years.
1. Two styles of Southern lion
The Southern lion dance follows one of two main styles called (in Cantonese) Fut San (Buddha mountain) and Hok San (crane mountain). Fut San is the older and more powerful style that incorporates martial arts moves, while Hok San is the more commonly seen dance style in Malaysia. It is described as a more expressive style accompanied by vigorous drumming, making it the more popular one to watch.
2. High pole origins
High pole lion dance performances these days are quite impressive to watch in competitions, but believe it or not, the standards for international competitions these days were actually pioneered by lion dance associations in Malaysia. The idea of performing on poles was inspired by Mei Hua Quan, a style of kung fu performed on pillars, but it was Malaysia that began increasing the height of the poles in competitions to about two to three metres tall. Many countries later began to follow these standards.
3. Two forms
There are two forms of lion dances – the Northern and the Southern. The Southern lion dance is the most commonly seen form in Malaysia, but there are a few troupes that can also perform the Northern lion dance. The Northern lion dance is usually performed with a pair of lions and sometimes an additional dancer holding a ball. It is a more playful, cat-like style compared to the Southern lion dance.
4. Colourful characters
Traditionally, lion dance costumes were only made in specific colours but as time passed, taboo colours such as blue slowly became accept - able. These days, it is pretty common to see lions in various shades of pink, and some even come with LED lights for night performances. Lion dancers are sometimes accompanied by quirky characters such as the Big Head Buddha or Cai Shen (God of Prosperity), who serve to entertain spectators.
5. No age or gender limit
In the 1970s, Malaysian lion dance associations only permitted men aged 21 and above to join. But today, even children may start from as young as seven years old and girls are permitted to join some associa - tions too. Fong says that associations such as Khuan Loke started doing this more than a decade ago as this was common overseas in countries such as the US, and because the interest in taking up lion dance was dwindling.
6. Different music
Southern lion dance music only needs a lion drum, a Chinese gong, and bronze cymbals. Both Fut San and Hok San styles have unique music patterns that correspond to specific lion dance moves. On the other hand, Northern lion dance as well as dragon dance use traditional Chinese orchestral music instead, where instruments such as the suona (a Chinese double-reeded horn) can be heard. As these instruments are rare in Malaysia, the song can instead be played over a radio, but Fong says this loses its cultural significance.
7. Different appearance
Northern lion costumes comprise a gold-painted wooden head and a full shaggy outfit for dancers, which can be very warm to wear in Malaysia’s tropical climate. Southern lion heads were tradi - tionally made from papier-mâché over a bamboo frame, but Malaysian-made lion heads use a rattan frame instead, which is much more durable. The older Fut San lions in the 1970s had tails up to 3.6m long, meaning that there was more space between the head and tail dancers. But today, most Southern lions have shorter tails.
8. Southern lion head design
Lion heads have colourful facial features that also include a horn, mirror, and pom-poms. The horn serves more as a symbol that is commonly found on all legendary Chinese creatures, including the Nian monster, the legend that is most strongly associated with the lion dance. The mirror serves to chase away evil spirits, but the purpose of the pompoms appears to have been forgotten over the course of time and are now mainly decorative.
9. Spreading fortune
Lion dances are common at the opening of lion dances in this context is cai qing, which translates as the “plucking of greens”. In Chinese, different pronuncia - tions of cai can mean either “pluck”, “vegetable”, or “fortune”. Lion dancers will pluck apart fruits and vegetables such as pomelos, oranges and lettuce, arrange them decoratively on a tray, and hand them back to the business owner, which symbolises the passing of good fortune to the business owner.
10. Learning lion dance
Newcomers to lion dance are usually taught how to play the music first, start - ing with the bronze cymbals. More expe - rienced members will then learn how to play the gong and the drum, before mov - ing on to becoming a lion dancer. Skills required for the head and the tail are slightly different and subject to individu - al preference. It is a myth that head dancers should ideally be small in stat - ure compared to the tail dancer