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Malaysian lion dancers bring new spirit to old tradition | Art and culture news

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – When her maternity ended, Mariam Abdul Nazar returned to work and her passion, lion dance.

A Malaysian Muslim, she began learning lion dance when she was 13, after accompanying her then 14-year-old brother to his training sessions.

“I was drawn to the energy of the music, especially the drums. And I thought the lions were cute with their big, big eyes,” Mariam, a 27-year-old content reviewer, told Al Jazeera.

In multiracial Malaysia, lion dancing has become so popular that it is not just the country’s ethnic Chinese who are taking up the art.

Muhibah Lion Dance Troupe, established in 1984, is the first multiracial lion dance troupe in the country. Its name, Muhibah, is from the Malay word “muhibbah” which means a feeling of friendship or companionship.

Spectators at a mall in Kuala Lumpur are enthralled by a performance, with some trying to capture it on their phones (Florence Looi/Al Jazeera)

At the Khuan Loke Dragon and Lion Dance Association, where Mariam trains, her teammates are made up of Malaysians, the ethnic majority in Malaysia, Indians, an ethnic minority and a handful of foreigners.

Now an adult and new mother, Mariam finds it difficult to commit to the three-times-a-week training schedule, but she returns to help out during the Lunar New Year, one of the busiest times for lion dance troupes in Malaysia.

Festive atmosphere

The lion is a traditional symbol of good luck in Chinese culture, and lion dancing is believed to usher in good fortune while driving away evil and misfortune.

Chinese families and Chinese-owned businesses hire lion dancers to perform in their homes and offices, in the belief that it will bring good luck for the rest of the year.

Malls also hire lion dance troupes to put on shows throughout the 15-day celebration as well as in the weeks leading up to the Lunar New Year.

There are Facebook pages dedicated to tracking where and when performances are held.

Sarah Thiang and her family try to catch at least one show every year.

“It’s part of Chinese culture. It’s fun and really puts me in a festive mood,” she said, watching an acrobatic performance in a shopping mall.

“It’s a bit unnerving to see them (the lion dancers) on high poles, but I wasn’t worried about them. I have confidence in their abilities,” she added.

Lion dancers in full costume leap from a high pole to another.  The leaping lion is yellow and furry.  There is another lion in front, which is red and blue, and the two artists who make up the lion stand on a single pole.  The man who forms the hind end of the lion holds up the person who is its head and front legs.  The performance is outside and there are houses and trees behind.
Malaysian lion dance teams are known for their acrobatic skills as they perform the dance on poles that can be as high as three meters (Florence Looi/Al Jazeera)

The acrobatic lion dance is performed on high poles ranging from one to three meters in height.

Practitioners must be flexible and strong, and all movements must be perfectly coordinated.

A misstep or an ill-timed movement can result in serious injury.

The lion dance tradition may have originated in China around 1,000 years ago, but it is Malaysia that sets the pace, and Kuala Lumpur is considered the lion dance capital of the world.

Performing on high poles is a relatively new development, invented in the 1990s by Malaysian Siow Ho Phiew, who later created a high pole sequence that became the new standard in acrobatic lion dance worldwide.

Siow, or Master Siow as he is often called in a nod to his expertise, is also a master craftsman of lion heads and a world-renowned trainer.

One of his students is Harlen Lee, owner and head instructor at Gee Yung International Martial Arts, Dragon and Lion Dance Sports Association in Hawaii, USA.

Lee remembers a time when lion dancing was mostly performed by and for people in Chinese society.

“Now almost every country has a lion dance team. It’s pretty amazing that our culture, our background has touched other cultures. I’m proud of that,” said Lee, who is based in Honolulu.

He makes it a point to return to Malaysia every year to train with a local team, and if he is unable to do so, he sends one of his students instead.

“Just being in that atmosphere, going into the heart of learning lion dance mastery, helps us get better,” Lee said.

Music is ‘heartbeat’

“One of the reasons Malaysian lion dance teams keep winning competitions is because our lions are lifelike, they have spirit,” said Eric Fong, general secretary and trainer of Khuan Loke.

Lions pose at the end of the performance with lucky rolls hanging from their mouths.  The artists who make up the lions stand on tall poles.  One lion is red and the other pink.  There are lots of people watching and they are clapping
At the end of the performance, the lions show lucky rolls (Florence Looi/Al Jazeera)

Fong, who also judges lion dance competitions, says the art of lion dancing is not only about performing stunts, but also about the ability to convey emotions.

A flap of the ears, a fluttering eyelid – these movements can be used to express playfulness, excitement or ferocity.

At Khuan Loke, all lion dance artists start by learning to play the instruments – the drums, cymbals and the gong.

“The music is the heartbeat of a lion dance,” explained Fong. “There is no shortcut.”

The training and performance schedule is grueling.

This often means Fong and his team have to skip almost all Lunar New Year celebrations, except for the traditional family reunion dinner held on the eve of the festival.

Fong says his family has gotten used to seeing little of him at a time when family gatherings are valued.

“They are more understanding now. It’s not like I’m doing something bad. I’m keeping the tradition alive and I’m doing something that all Malaysians can be a part of,” he said.

Two women take a selfie with the lion after the performance.  They smile and look very happy.  The lion is yellow with furry eyes and upper lip and painted with gold, red and black
Lion dance performances take place during Lunar New Year celebrations as people look for good luck in the coming year (Florence Looi/Al Jazeera)

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