YEAR OF THE DRAGON 2012: She Takes Her Fan and Throws it in the Lion's Den
by Gene Ching
If you want to irk lion dancers, call them dragon dancers. Or worse, mistake "lion dancing" for "country line dancing." This drove me crazy back when I used to lion dance. Lion dancing is the most misunderstood tradition within Chinese martial arts. Every Chinese New Years, cheerful dancing lions scamper all over the media - a most prominent expression of Chinese culture this time of year. Every movie or TV show that has a scene in Chinatown invariably stumbles into a lion dance. And yet, the general public is completely naïve to the martial connection behind this time-honored art.
I'll add that you don't really understand the martial connection of lion dance unless you've actually tried it. Either you're in the lion or you're not. For me, lion dance always hurt the same way kung fu does. I've not only shed sweat for lion dance, I've shed blood. I've been bitten by lion dancing in both a real and metaphoric way. I remember one particular lion grinning at me with its lips dripping with my freshly-spilt blood. But I'm getting ahead of my lion's tale - or tail, if you'll pardon the pun.
It's been years since I've done any lion dancing now, but I'll always have fond memories of the art and its impact on my martial practice. Lion dancing took me to places I never expected. Not only did I get into countless school auditoriums, parties and restaurant back kitchens, I danced on stage with the Grateful Dead. In fact, my whole Deadhead experience, at least the Jerry Garcia years, could be characterized by lions and dragons. And as Deadheads go, I was very Dead-icated, so much so that the band even put me on the payroll for a spell. It was a long, strange detour in my warrior's journey, a scenic route on the road to martial enlightenment. To quote the Dead, "Once in a while, you get shown the light, in the strangest of places if you look at it right." But again, I'm getting ahead of my lion's tail.
The last time I was under a lion head was for the Year of the Rooster celebration at my kid's kindergarten. The whole pre-K through K school turned out for me and my lion head. It was fun. At the kindergarten level, I'm not obligated to do any difficult stunts (although I remember a similar kindergarten demo years before where one kid asked me why I didn't do any backflips - he thought I was Liu Kang of Mortal Kombat). In truth, I'm so out of lion dance practice I couldn't do any stunts anymore anyway, at least none without lasting injuries. Nevertheless, my kid's classmates all had a blast getting inside the lion head and making it wink. The teachers did too. No one can resist getting into a colorful lion, no matter what your age. Even I had a blast. And there's nothing like turning someone on, especially to something like lion dancing. I was once a kid like that. My mom tells me that after I saw my first lion dance demo, I grabbed a blanket and started jumping around the house. If my demo had a similar impact on my kid's classmates, I apologize to my fellow parents.
I remember when the announcement went up on the little corkboard at Lam Kwoon, my first kung fu school. I was in high school and this handwritten sheet announced the addition of a Sunday lion dance class in classic Chinglish for a nominal fee - something like twenty bucks a month. I signed up immediately. This was no kid in a blanket. This was the real thing. I was thrilled. Another high school friend who was training with me then signed up too. Just like with kung fu, he did it just because I did it. He asked me right after, "What's lion dance-" I was shocked he would sign up for something with no idea what he was getting into. He didn't last long with the troupe, or with kung fu for that matter.
The class was taught by my sisuk, a martial brother of my master, so my martial uncle. A rather motley crew of students joined in, only a few of our top students. Lions are supposed to be only the top students because, like the school's competitors, they go out and represent. But back then, kung fu was small. Our modest school grabbed whoever might volunteer for such an undertaking. Besides, it was a traditional school, so everyone was family. Only a few of us had any idea what it was anyway. And none of us truly realized how deeply it was connected to our kung fu practice until later. The bulk of our troupe weren't our strongest, not by a long shot. I was far from a top representative of Lam Kwoon at that tender age, but it wasn't for lack of trying.
We learned traditional southern lion dancing, mostly ground work. We climbed benches and jars, but no plum flower poles. This was over three decades ago, and few Americans were doing lion dancing, much less plum flower poles back then. Now, when you see the International Lion Dance Competitions, it's all about plum flower poles. I've never danced on them, but I've stood atop poles with my monk master at Shaolin. Those things are so dangerous if you lack good skills. You get bounced like a pachinko ball off telephone poles if you fall. Now I have the utmost respect for those lion dance competitors, but that's a whole other level of lion dance. Those competitions are fully choreographed, but most lion dance is more improv. The whole team couldn't go scope out a restaurant beforehand. Often, we were lucky just to get there on time for the performance.
When I started lion dancing, I was delegated to play cymbals and tail. I loved tail - it was so surreal. You're under this heavy carpet drape, trying to bust the best stances you can, trying to mirror your partner's moves that you cannot see. You can't really see anything but tail cloth and the ground. You must stick your ass up higher than your head or it looks like the lion has a humpback. In the position - ass-over-head and deep-stance stepping - it's very hard to breath. Your lungs are squished so you cannot take an inhalation at even half of normal capacity. It tests your endurance like hell. You can be under the lion for twenty minutes or more straight. Imagine doing a twenty-minute-long form and we're not talking no Tai Chi. This requires some hardcore stamina. You don't just act, you react. You can only talk to your partner in clipped words, usually drowned out by the noise. More communication is done by feel, transmitted through the tail cloth. You anticipate when he might jump, because if you miss, you'll jerk your partner over in midair. Drumbeats cue a few pre-choreographed steps, but otherwise, it's all improvisation. Only your partner, the head, can see, but rather poorly. I remember going into rooms in restaurants and having no idea where I was, how many people were watching, whether there was a wok full of hot oil right next to me, nothing. I had no data at all except what the floor looked like. I remember lion dancing in an empty back room for several minutes until one of my teammates was "kind" enough to stop me. That's life as a lion butt.
It's even harder for the head. The head has to do all the same deep stance work, plus manipulate this huge rattan puppet head. It isn't that heavy, but it is very unwieldy. To get the head to look sharp, you must have a lot of snap in your upper body, the same kind of short power needed to deliver quick strikes. A good lion head dancer has to be able to throw hundreds of punch-like movements per routine. The eyes and ears are controlled by a series of cords, but you can only use one hand because the other has to control the head and mouth. It takes some serious puppeteer work to blink the eyes and eat a head of lettuce at the same time. With one hand on the cords and the other making the mouth chew, you often have to shred the lettuce with your teeth. My sisuk said he used to do this restaurant stunt where he would take some chopsticks and break them under the head, and then while bowing backwards, he'd use the pieces to write out the character for "good luck" on the floor. I'm not sure I believe that - "good luck" is a complicated character to write, especially with broken chopstick pieces while your other hand holds the lion head - but what sisuk doesn't have great stories- Then again, my sisuk was from the mean streets of Hong Kong, so if there was extreme lion dancing anywhere, it was there.
The best part is they throw firecrackers at you. It's not so bad for the head because you have this huge rattan-and-paper helmet that covers the bulk of your body. But as the tail, you can't see them coming. You have the thick tail cloth to protect you, but every once in a while, one shows up on the ground underneath. Remember that tail posture- That puts your face within a foot of the ground. Imagine being under a thick blanket, all bent over, exhausted, with your face inches away from an M-80 whose fuse just flashed into the stick. It taught me to jump quickly. It's just like in all kung fu - you learn how to dodge or you learn how to take it. Lion dancing was always an intense workout rush. It tested all my kung fu skills. It was so much fun.
The Conquering Lion
In Asia, lions traditionally represented the shaman or the warrior. There were no real live lions in Asia, except perhaps as the exotic pets of tyrants. And just like for Christ and Jah, the lion was a symbol of the Buddha. Throughout Asia, there are masked rituals where dancers act as guardian spirits. They become incarnations of mystical protectors. I was struck by its universality when I was in Bali, Indonesia. There, they have a unique variation of lion dance called the Barong. The Barong is a large two-man lion costume with a heavily-adorned gold-sequined box-like frame and a small puppet head. It's a playful and whimsical symbol of good. In the dance, it battles Ragda, portrayed by a dancer in a black-and-white witch costume with ghastly fangs and claws. It's a symbol of evil. Just like with Chinese lion dancing, the Barong chases away evil. When you lion dance, you become an exorcist. To truly become the lion, you must channel that universal lion protector spirit. And in order to do that, you must be a worthy vessel.
In ancient China, the worthiest vessels were martial arts masters. Not only did the masters use their skills to protect villages, in a very real street fighting sense they also used their skills to heal. They studied herbs, distributed medicine, and mended injuries, often with a mystical air of qi. It was natural that the role of lion dancer would fall upon kung fu masters. Any time an extra shot of luck was needed, like a new shop opening, a wedding, or a religious holiday, the lions were called out to scare off any evil spirits. This also served as a social construct which allowed masters to demonstrate who was under his or her protection. The villagers helped support the masters by feeding the lions laysee or lucky money in red envelopes. Several years ago, in a common Chinese culture clash, some American police departments learned that this was going on and tried to bust several Chinatown lion dance troupes for blackmailing protection money. Perhaps, in less enlightened times, those same lions had to protect Chinatown from racist cops.
At the same time, in a typical Chinese-haggling fashion, the sponsors of the lion dance are allowed to test the school's skill with the laysee. The new store owner can place the lucky money in some sort of trap. Usually, they just suspend it from a high eave or pole. In ancient times, lions might have to traverse an obstacle course to get to the laysee, like those plum flower poles. Think of the opening scene of Jackie Chan's film, THE YOUNG MASTER. My sisuk had another story about how he once had to yank the laysee out of a jar filled with live crabs. He used to pack a knife in his lion head. After all, that was Hong Kong, and if rival schools might try to sabotage a performance, things could get ugly. He said he used to pack butterfly knives behind the lion's eyes and a chain whip around its neck. He used the knife to stab the biggest crab, knowing all the other crabs would rush over like hungry vultures. With that distraction, he could grab the laysee without getting pinched, all while under the lion head. Fortunately, I never had to encounter that. The lion head was heavy enough without having to pack it with weapons.
My Freshly-spilt Blood
About a decade or so after I started training it lion dance, I had come up in the Lam Kwoon ranks to become the head Shaolin instructor senior member of our Lion Dance troupe. I was playing lion head, tail, cymbals and gong, plus demonstrating kung fu for kindergartners who still mistook me for Liu Kang. I never got the hang of drumming, sad to say. As we weren't a militant school by any stretch of the imagination, when Chinese New Year came, things went crazy. All our team members were all volunteers with day jobs or school, so whenever we could muster a team, we'd pack in as many gigs as we could. To get everyone to the show on time was always a stereotypic Chinese fire drill.
One Chinese New Year, we had four gigs in one day, all out of town in Santa Cruz. We had risen before dawn to get to our first gig, an elementary school at morning recess. It ran late, which made us late to all of the following gigs. We had caravanned, but the gigs were so spread out that we kept getting separated. I can't remember the gigs in between, but the last one was at this Chinese restaurant that was over an hour from the previous gig. I was very tired. It had been an exhausting day of lion dancing, kung fu demonstrations and driving. I just wanted to put on that lion head, do my thing, then eat and be done.
I arrived with one other team member. We got there about half an hour late and the others were lost on the road somewhere behind us. This was prior to cell phones, so we had no idea where the others were and were just hoping and praying that they would come through. The manager was having a conniption. He had invited the local press, who were getting impatient. He had even sprung for a rather costly fireworks permit. He reminded us of this repeatedly, obviously angry, but trying not to lose face before the press or his customers. We stalled until everyone arrived. Thankfully they did make it, jumping right out of their cars into the performance.
Our show started just before dark. It was one of those spectacular red and purple California sunsets, the kind that make you fall in love with the West Coast in a heartbeat. When the drum roll began, the manager vented all of his frustrations by throwing his entire shopping bag full of firecrackers at us all at once. There's nothing like a face full of explosives to get your heart racing. I began as a lion head. We did our three opening bows and I dropped into horse stance, slamming the lion head over my body to give it a good dramatic shake. Almost instantly, I was sweating so much that I couldn't see. I had to keep releasing one hand to wipe my eyes clear. I was losing my grip because my hand was soaked with sweat. Suddenly I realized that it wasn't sweat at all. It was blood. My blood. Lots and lots of my blood.
The sunset's red glare made everything red, so I couldn't even see my own blood covering my own hand. I had pulled down the head so quickly it caused the ears to flap up. This brought one of the ear flap wires directly into my skull like a dagger, cutting a two-inch gash near the top of my head. After doing three previous performances, my body was on such a massive endorphin high that I barely noticed the injury. Head wounds get really bloody, especially when your heart is racing, so I was totally covered in blood under the lion head. I stumbled towards the drummer, flashing my bloodied palm at him from under the head to alert him to my dire situation. But if I couldn't see my own blood in the red sunset, how could he- It was an ill-conceived plan. My wave for help was completely ignored. Not thinking too clearly, I got close enough to wipe some blood on his sleeve. He still didn't get it, but he shifted me out nevertheless. When I lifted the head, my teammates gasped. I ran through the restaurant to the bathroom. Waitresses saw me coming and shrieked. Customers blanched. Eyes dilated. Bystanders choked back their horror. It wasn't an encouraging reaction at all.
Fortunately, my injury wasn't that bad - just a flesh wound. The copious amount of blood everywhere just made it look grisly, but I was fine. Soon I was cleaned up and laughing with my teammates about the mess I had made. The restaurant manager was appeased with my blood sacrifice (although I doubt he'd put it that way) and treated us to an excellent banquet. He probably felt it was auspicious.
After the banquet, I returned to the scene of the crime for a look-see. My blood was spattered all over the parking lot asphalt. You never want to see your own blood on asphalt. And since I had bloodied my hand, then grabbed the lion's mouth, my blood was dripping from those grinning lion jaws. It looked like a happy psychedelic frog that had just feasted on a juicy grub. I'll never forget that lion looking back at me with a bellyful of my blood, lit with the fading sunset like some macabre demon. I've never felt so "owned" by a puppet.
Samson Got His Hands Around That Lion's Jaws
The next day we had a lunchtime gig at the local high school. Of course, we were late again. I was on time, but some of the others who had to get there on their lunch break were having troubles finding it. The entire school was gathered in the gymnasium and, just like the restaurant manager, the principal was furious. I quickly grabbed the mike and started babbling, again stalling for time. Unlike kindergarteners, high school kids are never an enthusiastic audience, no matter how much you might look like Liu Kang. I ranted about the history of lion dancing, sort of like I've been ranting here, but the students were unimpressed, stifling yawns at my extemporizing and muttering their boredom amongst each other. It was a tough crowd. I was running out of things to say, so I described that classic scene in THE YOUNG MASTER where Jackie Chan duels his classmate in a lion dance. Later, I was glad I did that.
We did a two-lion routine and as soon as I brought the head down over me I re-opened the cut. It wasn't as bad as the previous night, just a trickle. I was able to finish our routine, which was just as well since there was no one to switch out with this time. As I said earlier, learn how to dodge or learn how to take it. That time, I just took it. As soon as we finished, I dashed to the mike, blood running down my face, and snapped, "Any questions-" The entire assembly was stunned into silence. They looked just like those waitresses, faces blanched, eyes dilated. It was a delicious moment - hundreds of teenagers struck dumb at the sight of real blood. Finally, one young girl broke the silence, raised her hand and asked sheepishly, "Why are you bleeding-" Without missing a beat I said we had simulated a fight, just like in YOUNG MASTER, and the other lion head had snapped off a quick kick that caught me in the head. "Didn't you see that-" I added, "It was pretty fast." I'm not sure if they believed it or not, but I gave no other explanation. The principal seemed impressed, but we weren't invited back the next year.
So now you're probably wondering how lion dancing got me from restaurants and high schools to the stage of the Grateful Dead. Honestly, I still wonder about that myself sometimes. To find out, you'll have to read my next installment.
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