Traditional Chinese dancers connect with culture

Anusha Vadlamani | Staff Writer

Jessica Wang | Staff Writer

Lion dancers, including senior Matthew Gong, perform at a Chinese cultural event. Gong said that dancing has helped him grow closer to both his culture and his fellow dancers

When it comes to Chinese New Year traditions, lion dancing is the mane event.

Lion dancing, a traditional Chinese form of dance, is said to have originated during the Tang Dynasty after an emperor dreamed he was rescued by a lion. Since then, lion dancing has often been a staple of Chinese New Year, as lions have become a symbol of good luck and fortune and are believed to drive away evil spirits.

Lion dancing, traditionally, is an extension of Chinese martial arts. The choreography is designed to capture the movement and character of actual lions, and according to Mason senior JingYi Yen, this is no easy feat.

“Each lion is controlled by two people: one in the head, the other as the back,” Yen said. “However, halfway through a routine the head and back switch roles, which usually happens when the other lion has the attention of the audience so that the switch is masked. So for the routine, each member is responsible for knowing their individual halves of the routine when they are the head, and following the other member when they are the back.”

While the movement of the lions is crucial to the performance, according to Mason senior Matthew Gong, the music is just as important. 

“When the music starts, the lions start their lives — but then separate,” Gong said. “After a little bit, the lions crash into each other and fall asleep symbolizing the crossing of paths. After this, the drums ‘wake up’ the lions and the lions move in synchronization. As the dance progresses, even when the lions are not together, their moves typically match each other. The music represents the journey the two lions go through and we’re simply the ones acting it out.”

For Yen, lion dancing has been about finding the balance between energetically performing for a crowd and ensuring his own safety.

“When you get into a routine, it’s easy to over exert yourself and push yourself too far during the performance,” Yen said. “Inside the suits, it gets hot and you can’t really see your surroundings, which is an issue because you need to know where the other lion is during the routine for the routine to be successful.”

Despite the strenuous work needed for every performance, Mason senior Eric Sun said that lion dancing has allowed people to find a renewed sense of purpose for the new year. For Sun, it has become a medium to not only support his community, but to also spread his culture. 

“The original purpose of our group was to fundraise for the Taiwanese-Chinese school,” Sun said. “But since we’ve become dancers, we’ve looked beyond that, and have strived to spread traditional Chinese culture in the Greater Cincinnati area.”

While spreading Chinese culture through his performances, Sun has encountered unexpected moments of kindness, which in turn, have allowed him to give back to his own community.

“One of the things that we have in lion dancing is a plate,” Sun said. “Part of our routine is to grab candy from it and throw it out into the crowd but one time after we finished a routine, someone believed that it was a plate to leave tips on, and soon we were left with 300 or 400 dollars. I decided to donate mine back to the church.”

For Yen, what makes the hard-work behind lion dancing is much deeper than monetary gains. Instead, it is a priceless connection to his heritage.

“The act of dancing itself helps me connect to my Chinese culture,” Yen said “This is a rare thing to do as I was born and raised in the U.S. so I’m a bit disconnected from my Chinese heritage. I also do Lion Dance as it’s fun to go to events with my friends and interact with the Chinese community.”

In fact, growing up in the midst of Ohio’s soybean and corn farms, keeping their culture alive has become a mission that Gong and the rest of the lion dancing team has championed.

“It’s really important for me, because it brings me and my friends closer together,” Gong said. “Me, JingYi, and Eric have really bonded, especially just driving up to different events, dancing together, and working on being better performers. It’s also brought me closer to my parents and my siblings. We all have something to bond over, which is why it’s really important that this group and its legacy live on.”

Photo contributed by the Cincinnati Chinese School