Passing on the skills of lion dancing


Be it a dance, craftwork, food or an artisanal skill, traditional arts and crafts can only be preserved if it is taught and passed on to the younger generation by those who have deep knowledge of it. This new column brings stories of individuals who play a part in the preservation works and the younger ones who strive to carry on with the tradition.  

HE may be just 30 years old but Christopher Leong is already a mentor to many young and aspiring Wu Shu artists and lion dancers in the Klang Valley.  

The former national Wu Shu champion is coaching many youngsters including his two nephews Leong Shew Kune, seven, and Leong Junn Lam, five, to master the skills of lion dancing.  

Training from the age of three, the children are already performing at events and they are always the centre of attraction.  

Essentials: Thecymbals and gongare an importantpart of the liondance performance.

“I like lion dancing. It makes me feel very powerful and stylish,” said Junn Lam during a training session with his uncle and brother.  

The young ones were enthusiastically prancing around holding their elaborately decorated lion heads above their heads.  

Leong said martial art and lion dance went hand in hand as it helped to build strength and stamina for a lion dancer in order to perform well.  

“A lion dancer is required to have excellent leg and arm strength and martial arts such as Wu Shu and Kung Fu help a dancer to achieve that.  

“So training from a young age helps,” he said.  

Leong picked up Wu Shu and lion dance skills from his late father Lawrence Leong Swee Lun who had mastered the discipline from Master Chen from China.  

The art has also been passed down to his older siblings Leonie, Eric and Derrik, who are deeply involved in the martial art and lion dance scene.  

He first started teaching the art form at the age 14 and has trained many students since then.  

Preparations: Leongseeing to a lion head.

While it may only take one week for trained dancers to prepare for a performance, which usually lasts 20 minutes, a beginner may take at least three months to be ready.  

“However, a dancer only learns through experience, no matter how much is taught.  

”Furthermore, the person must identify if his talent lies in moving the lion or in playing the musical instruments,” he said.  

A typical lion dance troupe has 11 members with one playing the drum, two on cymbals, one on the gong, four playing lions and two reserve dancers.  

“I think there is a positive attitude towards lion dancers these days and it's very encouraging in terms of preserving the art form.  

“Those days, although the dance was a symbol good luck for the Chinese, the dancers were often associated with dark activities such as gangsterism,” said Leong.  

But the mindset has changed tremendously and the change has allowed more young people to take up the art form.  

Malay and Indian youngsters have also picked up the skill.  

Besides performing, Leong and his siblings are also knowledgeable in the art of making the lion costume which includes the head and tailpiece.  

The head is made from paper placed over a bamboo structure while the body is designed using cloth of various colours.  

“My mother taught us how to make the costumes. She always said learning a skill was more important than education,” he said, adding that ready-made costumes were easily available from China these days.  

“We are lucky because new materials used make the head lighter.  

“Those days, the head alone can weigh up to 2 kg. 

“But it is all good as we are able to carry on with the tradition,” said Leong  

FACT FILE 

The Lion dance is a symbol of good luck and was initially an entertainment for the noble, which gradually spread to the army and finally to the civilians.  

Classified in two styles - Northern and Southern China, the body of the lion in the Northern style is closer to reality and they dance in pairs while in the Southern style, the lion looks more colourful and they dance individually.  

The lion head is constructed from bamboo framework, wire and paper. The body and tail is made from cloth.  

The person in the head controls the mouth, ear and eye movements while the dancers near the tail have to duplicate the head's stances while remaining in the stooped posture.  

The dancers are usually kung fu students. Many fighting techniques can be seen, especially with weapons used against the lion.  

Inventive kung-fu schools have developed many styles and routines over the years and the popular one is the “sleep-lion'' routine in which the lion becomes drowsy and lies down.  

The “Choy Ching'' routine allows the lion to eat the lettuce with the lucky money inside.  

A lion dance is not complete without at least two people dressed in a monk's head masks, robes and carrying fans.