10 March 2007

Lion Dancers

Finally, I was able to see the elusive Lion Dancers of Ho Chi Minh City. I became addicted to Lion Dancers when I lived in Kuala Lumpur. There, I got to see them on a fairly regular basis. But here it has been a different story. Every time I’d hear the beat of their drums, I’d go running over only to see them packing up the truck and driving off.

With Tet being over, and having arrived at the truck pack-up stage at least five times, I figured I was out of luck. But then, miracles of miracles, HCMC hosted a five day, Chinese cultural fair, right in the middle of the city. I also finally learned that these festivals take place in Chinese communities world-wide, always on the 15th day of the Lunar New Year.

Two huge parks in the center of town were blocked off to traffic. The parks became restaurants and exhibition halls and stages, while the streets became performance venues for Lion and Dragon dancers. Red lanterns, suspended from wires, hung across the streets and around the parks. Everything was a wash of red and gold and pink.

The festival ran from 9:00 in the morning to 7:00 at night, the evening being the time when the majority of the people went to participate in the events. The Lion Dancers performed from 9-11, and again from 5-7. Obviously, I went to the morning shows which were not too crowded, but darn hot.

I have no idea how many Lion Dancing schools they have, but judging from how many participated during the times I went, there are a lot. One school would set up their equipment and do their thing. Before they had even struck the street stage, another group began to set-up.

This is no simple parade-around-the-crowd in lion costumes. It is done on top of a line of pillars of varying heights, the highest being about ten feet off the ground. The crew first brings the pillars out in about four sections and then bolts them together. Then one of the dancer’s jumps up and, going from pillar to pillar, checks for stability. Below, the crew bangs in wood wedges to stabilize it.

Before the lions make their entrance, the drummers start to beat on large drums with short, thick, wooden sticks, accompanied by gongs and cymbals. Then the two-man lion prances out and dances around for the crowd, still staying on the street.

I am always amazed at how quickly you forget that there are two people inside the costume. The dancers are all young men, probably not more than 20 years old. They are small, but have more strength and agility then seems possible. One guy is the head and front; he bats the eyes, wiggles the ears, and opens the mouth, all to the beat of the drums. The guy being the lion booty must have the hardest part. He is bent over, hands secured on the waist of the front half, which means he does not have a lot of clear vision, not that it is easy to see through a giant lion head. They walk around, wink at the crowd and shake their lion butt, then suddenly the back guy lifts the front guy up to his shoulders, creating a very tall lion.

Soon the lion is on top of the pillars, jumping from one to the other all the way to the end, and then returning. Along the way, they do fancy foot work, almost flying between pillars. The scariest part is when the back guy hoists the front guy on to his shoulders and jumps forward, dropping the front of the lion onto another pillar. The show lasts about 15 minutes, with the crowd cheering, especially the kids. Just watching, I feel the 80-something degree heat, even in the filtered shade of the tall trees. I have no idea how they manage not to get heat stroke up there in full lion costume.

As one school clears out their equipment, and another school starts to set up, the dragon dancers come out. This time it is nine guys holding long poles attached to the dragon body. They loop in and out of each other as the drummers bang out the beat. At some point they converge with the ends of the poles touching at a center point. Now the next part I am not too clear on because I always miss it but somehow, four of the dragon men end up in a prone position, suspended on their poles as the others spin them around in a circle. I also have never been able to get a picture.

This was, absolutely, the highlight of the Tet holiday for me. It was not only seeing the great performances, but being in a crowd – and not too big of a crowd - with mesmerized children and people of all ages enjoying the atmosphere.

I certainly hope I do not have to wait another year to see the next show.