Lion dance tradition roars back to life

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Lion dance is a traditional Chinese performing art that is often staged for entertainment on festive occasions including Spring Festival. [Photo/Xinhua]

Wagging its head and tail, tweaking its ears and scratching its cheeks -- a scarlet "lion" was cavorting on the ground during its daily practice in Tengxian County, south China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.

After performing the routine, two lads doffed the costume -- Qiu Haiwei, 17, who performed as the head of the red lion, and Huang Qingliang, 16, as the tail. Both are dance majors at the county's secondary vocational school.

The lion dance, a traditional Chinese performing art, is often staged for entertainment on festive occasions including Spring Festival. The tradition dates back to the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280 A.D.) and saw its heyday in the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-589 A.D.).

The county's lion dance, which mimics a lion with martial and acrobatic styles, was listed as a national intangible cultural heritage in 2011.

"The lion dance has been an indispensable part of life in the county. In my childhood, whenever the beating of drums and clanging of gongs was heard, I knew the lion dance was on and rushed out to watch," Huang said.

"The lion leaped from pole to pole as if it were flying," Qiu recalled his memory of the performers' breathtaking skills.

Full of love and curiosity for the traditional art, the duo started learning the dance two years ago. Learning the performing art was another matter entirely.

"It took us half a year to learn the basic skills and various moves. We practice so hard that we are always drenched in sweat and sometimes even injure ourselves," Huang said.

Dancing on the poles makes the art a gripping spectacle. There are 21 poles of heights between 1.2 meters and 2.5 meters with up to 1.8 meters between them. A single false step will send the performers tumbling to the ground below.

The hard work paid off. From squatting to prancing, and making a life-size lion puppet that can blink in accord with their manipulation of hidden poles, the brothers' lion dance improved, which earned them opportunities to perform at celebrations like the grand openings of businesses, and to compete against other local lion dance troupes.

Besides dancing, youngsters in the school also learn to make costumes. "We make lion heads, tails and legs in our school's workshop under the guidance of professionals," said Qin Jinmin, a 16-year-old drummer, who often accompanies Huang and Qin during dance practices.

"Though making it all by hand is a demanding task, it is worth learning, not only for mastering skills to earn a living but also for gaining a better understanding of the lion dance," Qin said.

Still, the ancient art form has fallen out of favor with the young generation, as the skills take years to master while only a meager wage can be earned.

Professional coaches and funding are hard to find, making it even more arduous for a lion dance troupe to survive, according to Deng Minghua, a national inheritor of the cultural heritage.

Local authorities have set up four training bases since 2017 and teamed up with enterprises and schools to help reboot the ancient art. The Tengxian secondary vocational school also launched a lion dance class and a training venue to foster more lion dancers.

"We must work hard to help pass on the heritage and its spirit through the generations," Deng said. 

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