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Lion Dancers Bring Luck and Fortune at Chinese New Year Celebrations

Colourful lions dance and perform rituals to bless a community and its members

The lion dancing team performs at the Victoria Drive celebration. Photo by Perrin Grauer.
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Reported by Lisa Steacy and Perrin Grauer

Vancouver’s Chinese lion dance teams work hard to hone the acrobatic skills that will be on display during some of this year’s Chinese New Year celebrations.

Ken Low is the chief instructor of the Vancouver City Police Lion Dancing Team, and a ninth degree wushu martial arts master.

His award-winning lion dancers performed to the accompaniment of cymbals, drums and gongs on Saturday at the Victoria Drive Chinese New Year celebration in South Vancouver.

A form of Kung Fu

Low said lion dancing is most often an art that kung fu practitioners mature into later in their training, since the two techniques use many of the same forms and require the same kind of strength.

“All the stances in martial arts are used in lion dancing. And then, of course, you’ve got no arm movements [in lion dancing], you’re not applying them for a punch or anything like that, but you would need upper body strength to move the lion head,” Low said.

Low’s team practices year-round, one or more times per week to perfect the shoulder-stands and mid-air twirls that are an iconic part of their performances, which Low says have evolved in past decades into more challenging feats of agility.

“Now, the lion dancing is seen as much more demanding…It’s almost like gymnastics,” Low said.

The lucky lion eats lettuce

The lion dance is meant to bring luck and fortune to a community and its members. It follows a ritual progression in which the lion first bows to pay respect, performs its various attributes as excited, happy, cautious and curious, and eventually approaches an offering of lettuce left out by a neighbourhood business owner.

“After the lettuce, he feels happy, excited for a while, and then for the parade, the lion would pay respect by bowing to the store owners, and then would go on to the next,” Low said.

Eugenia Chau, an instructor with the Vancouver Chinese Lion Dance Association, explained that the lettuce contains deeper significance than merely a snack for the lion.

“The word lettuce in Chinese sounds like ‘money,’ so when the lion gets the lettuce…you get prosperity for the coming year,” Chau said.

Lion dancing takes years of training

Having begun her training in China, Chau continued the practice in Canada after immigrating in 1991. She said the training is rigorous, but it prepares her and her team for the intensity and nuance of the performance.

“We do some weightlifting, and you also have a dedicated partner to work with, so you have better timing if you have to do any acrobatic moves,” Chau said.

Josh Pratt is a martial artist and member of Ken Low’s team. He led the lion dancers at Saturday’s Chinese New Year celebrations on Victoria Drive.

Pratt began training 16 years ago, and now competes internationally with the Vancouver City Police Lion Dancing Team.

He said despite the depth of his experience, he’d rather not be the dancer responsible for the lion’s head.

“I prefer being in the tail,” Pratt said. “A little less pressure being in the tail, I think.”

Lions bring the light

On what began as a rainy Saturday morning, Pratt and his crew leapt and bound around Victoria Drive as onlookers gasped and applauded the acrobatic ability of the six people inside the three lion costumes.

As they made their way further into the neighbourhood to collect the offerings of lettuce hung outside of local shops, the sun broke through the clouds and shone down on what had become a beautiful second day of the Chinese New Year.

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