Wednesday, January 24, 2001
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Posted on: Wednesday, January 24, 2001

Lion dancers take tradition to new heights

See video (2.8 Mb) of the Gee Yung International Martial Art & Lion Dance Association competing in Hong Kong.
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By Tanya Bricking
Advertiser Staff Writer

It used to be enough for Chinese performers to usher in the new year with a "takterlaktaktak" of drums, clash of cymbals, pop of fireworks and parade of lion dancers.

Now audiences are expecting a little more drama.

The lifelike blink of a costume lion’s eye no longer wows a crowd, not since the tradition of lion dancing turned the way of extreme sports.

Lion dancing, a mix of mime and mythology often performed to bless and bring luck to weddings and store openings, was once the main event at celebrations for the Lunar New Year, such as today, the beginning of the Chinese Year of the Snake.

But the tradition is evolving into tournament-level competition, with dancers out-jumping one another and doing synchronized stunts on stilts.

"Everybody likes a good circus," said Jeffrey Lam, head instructor for the local Chinese Lion Dance Association. "And when you have a little bit of dare like that, it’s exciting.

"It’s almost like surfing," he said. "How do you describe what it’s like to ride a 25-foot wave? Words don’t cover it. If you’re up 9 feet in the air and you’re taking a 5-foot leap, there’s nothing between you and the ground. Awesome."

Varden Lee, the tail end of a two-man lion team, has experienced the thrill and the agony.

Lee, 26, of Nuuanu will have his purple-sequined legs sticking out of the back of a lion costume today. But the performer for Gee Yung International Martial Art & Lion Dance Association’s troupe will leave the high jumps to someone else.

'Safety comes first'

He fell from a 4-foot pole during practice last week and hurt his leg.

"Safety comes first," he said. "If we feel we’re not comfortable, we try to stay off it."

He’s the second Gee Yung dancer injured in a tumble this month. David Young, a San Francisco member who was performing with the group three weeks ago at the International Luminous Dragon Dance and Lion Dance Invitation Tournament 2001 in Hong Kong, sprained his ankle doing a 180-degree turn on a stilt.

Injuries have become part of the risk of a sport Beijing is pushing to become an event in the 2008 Olympics. It’s so popular in Malaysia that there are 2,000 lion dance troupes there. Hawaii could see more of the action if an Asian-Pacific tournament in the works for August becomes a reality.

In Asia, officials lowered the limit of the poles to 10 feet after a dancer fell to his death from a 12-foot stilt, said Harlan Lee, lead instructor at the Gee Yung school, who is organizing the Asian-Pacific event.

For now, only a handful of martial arts schools in Hawaii have adopted the style of balancing on stilts. And at Gee Yung school, where a banner proclaims, "To master oneself is the greatest achievement," the competitive spirit is only part of a greater philosophy, instructor Lee said.

"It’s all about trust," he said. "If the head makes a mistake, the tail knows already. Nothing comes easy. To me, perseverance is the key."

Charlain Abaya has learned not to fret over her children becoming daredevils, because she trusts the instructors at Gee Yung, where her 5- and 6-year-old children take classes.

"They start out with basic conditioning and learning the culture, and they eventually go up to stilts," the Kalihi mother said.

Falling is a lesson in mastering the dance, she said.

"The lion is like a cat. They have to learn to land like a cat."

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