Edmonton·Video

'Doing squats the whole time': Chinese lion dance brings good fortune and sore muscles

For Catherine Wong, lion dancing is both a passion and challenging feat of physical fitness. 

'It used to be a way for kung fu schools to show off their skills'

Dancers with Edmonton's Hungmon Athletic Club perform inside an ornate lion costume. (Hungmon Athletic Club/Facebook)

For Catherine Wong, lion dancing is both a passion and a challenging feat of physical fitness. 

The traditional form of Chinese dancing is a sport and it's physically demanding, with jumps, high kicks and acrobatics,  Wong said.

"It's a lot of upper body strength but, because of the stances and everything, it does tend to burn out legs quite a bit, too," Wong said in an interview with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.

"It's almost like you're doing squats the whole time." 

Wong, 31, is a fixture at Hungmon Athletic Club in central Edmonton where she coaches students in weekly lessons. 

In Wong's classes, students learn to mimic the movements of the big-maned wild cats.  A chain of dancers perform inside each ornate costume, moving to the tap and clang of heavy percussion — a drum beat said to chase away evil spirits. 

The silk-and-tasseled lions scratch, lick and shake, with only the feet of the dancers visible below the fabric creature.

You have to look lively and look like a lion and not like a person that is struggling​​​​.- Catherine Wong

"There's definitely a learning curve," she said. 

"The head has to manipulate that whole piece at the front and you have to be able to do fine motor skills like blink the eyes and move the mouth and the ears and things like that.

"You have to look lively and look like a lion and not like a person that is struggling to hold up a heavy head." 

The traditional dance which combines art, history and kung-fu, is typically performed on special occasions such as Chinese New Year. (Edmonton Hung Mon Lion Dance/Facebook)

The dance is performed on big occasions and Wong and her class are preparing for a hectic day of performances across Edmonton during Saturday's Chinese New Year celebrations. 

"Culturally, it's a way to ward off bad spirits," she said. "So it's a way to start your new year with good fortune." 

Wong wasn't always a dancer. Her first passion was martial arts. She has a black belt in tae kwon do but stopped training in her teens when her school closed down.

At 18, during her first year at university, she discovered lion dancing through a friend on campus. It seemed the perfect fit. 

"It used to be a way for kung fu schools to show off their skills so all the stances are based in martial arts," she said.

"It seemed really interesting so I decided to check it out and I just fell in love with it."

Catherine Wong went from a newbie lion dancer to coach and encourages anybody to try out this traditional dance. 2:10

Freestyle and a backseat driver

To help co-ordinate the different stunts and martial arts stances involved, the dancers are connected by a belt inside the costume.

A lion is normally operated by two dancers. To lift the tail of the lion, the dancer in the back of the chain will shake the belt as a signal to the other dancer.

The person in front then swiftly jumps backward, tucking their legs into their chest. The back partner then grabs their legs, balancing them on their shoulders, creating the illusion of a raised tail.

The back dancer, also known as the "tail," is usually in charge, Wong said. 

"We choreograph bits of it but lion dance is also a bit of a freestyle," she said. 

"You have to be used to moving in unexpected ways and knowing your surroundings and knowing where your other lions are in a limited vision." 

"They might kind of 'backseat drive' you into where they want you to go."

Lion dance, which has various distinct regional types, is centuries old and steeped in tradition. It dates back to the Tang dynasty from 618 to 907 when it was often performed by the emperor as one of the official imperial court dances. 

Women were originally forbidden from performing and some "very superstitious" people are still wary of female dancers, Wong said.

Slowly, however, that perspective is changing, Wong said. 

"It was seen as bad luck to have females dancing," she said.  "Now it doesn't really seem like as big of an issue." 

"We still hear about some teams where females don't dance. They might be on instruments but they won't perform in a lion. But the overall community is moving toward females being accepted into performing. It's nice to see that shift." 

The dance is powerful to watch and exciting to perform, and Wong said everyone is welcome to don the lion costume and give it a try. 

"It's a chance to learn more about a culture ... and it's so much fun."

The heart of a lion. We'll get a behind-the-scenes look at the lion dancers who perform at Chinese New Year celebrations. 5:06

With files from Ariel Fournier

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