It takes a lion's share of discipline and training to lion dance

By John Kang

The fierce yet graceful lion dance takes years of practice and incredible strength to pull off

By John Kang |

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Lion dance master Keung Wai-chi at Times Square's "The Legend of Lion Dance" exhibition.

A colourful, fierce-looking lion the size of two men is dancing to the beat of traditional Chinese drums. It moves quickly yet delicately, like a kung fu master, before unrolling a scroll with its mouth. "Kung Hei Fat Choy," it reads.

The lion dance is a tradition across several Asian countries. In Hong Kong, we usually see the southern Chinese lion at festivals, such as Lunar New Year. And this year there's a top lion dancer to entertain us. Master Keung Wai-chi won the Hong Kong International Lion Dance Cup three times since 2011.

"I don't know why I like lion dance," says Keung. "I guess it's just cool. Everything about it: the moves, the music. It feels cool."

Watch John's lion dance lesson from Master Keung at the end of the article

Keung was first introduced to lion dancing at a young age by his father, who is also a lion dance master. But it was his exposure to martial arts that really helped his lion dancing. Growing up in a martial arts studio, he practised two martial arts styles which were essential to his lion dance education: sam jin and da dao mei hua guan.

"The sam jin kung fu style helped strengthen my arms and legs," he says.

It takes strength and discipline to master the lion dance. Photo: Times Square

From the brief lion dance lesson I had from the master, I quickly discovered strong arms and legs are very important. I like to think that I'm in decent shape, but after even a short lesson, I was soon out of breath.

Holding the papier-mâché lion's head soon left my arms aching; it is heavier than it looks. Using one hand, you hold the head with a small handle near the lion's mouth. The other hand is bent in an awkward position to control the mouth.

One of your arms must be strong enough to hold the lion's head level while you flap the mouth with the other. You also have to pull a string once in a while to make the lion blink. And you must do all of this while making quick, jerky movements, like a lion chasing prey.

There's a lot of crouching and jumping, too. With your arms busy holding up the lion's head, it's not easy to balance. The other style of martial arts Keung studied, da dao mei hua guan, helps with the lion dance movement.

"You turn and twist a lot in lion dance, and da dao mei hua guan helps with that," says Keung. In fact, you twist and turn so much while practising the martial art, Keung says that, "if you were to practise it in a sand pit, at the end of your session, you'd find that your feet had created a flower print on the sand from all the movement."

It's not just physically tiring, but mentally, too.

"You need teamwork because the lion dance is performed by two people," says Keung. "You need to be able to move and jump together, so you need to practise a lot; so much that the two of you feel as if you're one lion."

Watch John's lion dance lesson from Master Keung at the end of the article

Practising so much definitely brings dancers closer together. Keung says his lion partner, with whom he practises for six hours a day during competition periods, became his best friend soon after they started working together.

For Keung, not only do you get a good workout, develop teamwork, and look cool, you also learn the Chinese virtues of kung fu: loyalty, respect, kindness and brotherhood.

Each lion represents a character from a story, and by learning about the lion, you can learn about the virtues of the lion.

Keung's favourite is the Zhang Fei lion, which is black and white with a green nose and iron horns. Its ears are always injured because it's constantly fighting, earning the nickname the Fighting Lion.

"Zhang Fei is the bravest in his story," says Keung. "I like his story, and I think it can be applied to modern life. Everyone can be more courageous. Also, he's very cool."

The Zhang Fei lion is part of Times Square's exhibition, The Legend of Lion Dance, which showcases 36 lions from Keung's collection. The exhibition ends on March 5