Chinese New Year Dragon Dance

The following is adapted from an explanation by Don Gee.

The Dragon or lion dance practiced in the United States originates from the Guangdong Province. This lion and its performance are different from the Northern Lions seen in Beijing Opera or acrobatic performances. The lion dances usually are performed by members of gong-fu (kung-fu) schools and reflect that gong-fu style. For example, in Hung Gar (Hung Jia in Mandarin), the students practice very deep “horses” (stances), with the power coming from the twisting and rotation of the waist. In Choy Lay Fut (Tsai Li Fo), movements are quicker. No matter what style, the lion movements are feline in nature.

For a proper lion dance, the movements must match the music played by a minimum of three pieces: drum, gong and cymbal. Either the person performing in the lion head or the drummer initiates the movement and signals the other, so that the movement and music is synchronized. Certain movements must follow a specified sequence: for example, the 3-Star movement, then the 7-Star movement, followed by High Dance. Variations to the basic beats help keep the music lively. The loud music, along with the firecrackers and lion movements, are used to scare away “evil spirits” so that good luck will follow. Lion dancesare performed to bring luck and to ward off evil spirits, as with the beginning of the Lunar New Year and grand opening of businesses, and now – minus the firecrackers – at weddings and even red egg/ginger parties celebrating the birth of a baby.

Having a lion dance team perform at a wedding is getting popular in the United States, but it usually isn’t cheap. The cost will depend on whether the wedding couple wants one or two lions, as well as how fancy a performance they want, how much experience the lion dance team has, and age of the performers. In addition, a table may also be reserved for the team to eat dinner after the performance.

Payment to the performing group is usually made through the Choy Cheng, or “Eating of the Green (Vegetable).“ In this country, it has come to symbolize money, the color of dollar bills. Usually. the lay see (li shir) is in the form of a hung bao (lucky red envelope with the payment enclosed) which is tied to some vegetable matter such as loose leaf lettuce. Since the lay see is attached to some vegetable, it’s called “choy cheng,” with choy literally meaning vegetable. The greens are placed in an area for the lion to “eat.” The lion will carefully approach the “green” and even test it to make sure that it is safe and not a firecracker or other dangerous item. After testing on the left and right sides, the lion will do a “3-Star” routine (stepping to the 3-Star music) to ward off any others that may want to eat his “green.”

I’ve heard of some tests that include using a coconut, crab, or a “Seven Stars and the Moon” arrangement of oranges. Sometimes Chinese martial arts weapons representing a snake are laid down on the floor before the lettuce. This is also used to test the lion since there is a special sequence to follow before reaching the lettuce. (Some other types of etiquette that may be followed include testing the door opening, bowing to certain Buddhas represented by figurines, and bowing to and exchanging business cards with another lion dance team.)

The lion will then pick up the green in his mouth and “chew” it. The person manipulating the head first removes the “lay see” and places it inside his shirt, so as not to drop it, which would mean bad luck. Then he will tear the lettuce apart and throw it out first to the left, then to the right and then to the middle to help spread prosperity in all directions. The music will then change to “high dance” and the head will be raised and moved as if the lion is happy to have consumed his prize.

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