Lion Dancers, Uptown, Chicago, 2005. Photo by Henry Dombey/FACECOLLECTIVE and republished here with permission.
From Wikipedia. A lion dance is a form of traditional dance in Chinese culture, in which performers mimic a lion's movements in a lion costume. The lion dance is often mistaken as a dragon dance. An easy way to tell the difference is that a lion is operated by two people, while a dragon needs many people. Also, in a lion dance, the performers' faces are covered, since they are inside the lion. In a dragon dance, the performers can be seen since the dragon is held upon poles. Basic lion dance fundamental movements can be found in most Chinese martial arts.
Lion Dance on Chinese New Year and Festivals
During the Chinese New Year, lion dancer troupes from the Chinese martial art schools or Chinese guild and associations will visit the houses and shops of the Chinese community to perform the traditional custom of "cai ching", literally means "plucking the greens", a quest by the lion to pluck and eat the auspicious greens, normally vegetables like lettuce, which in Chinese is called 'cái' and sounds like 'cái' (fortune), and auspicious fruit like oranges, tied to a "Red Envelope" containing money; they are either hung highly or put on a table in front of the premises. The lion dance is believed to bring good luck and fortune to the business and the troupe is rewarded with the "red envelope".
The lion dance is sometimes performed at other traditional, cultural and religious festivals, business opening events, birthday celebrations, and wedding ceremonies.
In the old days, the lettuce was hung 15 to 20 feet above ground and only a well-trained martial artist could reach the money while dancing with a heavy lion head. These events became a public challenge. A large sum of money was rewarded, and the audience expected a good show. Sometimes, if lions from multiple martial arts schools approached the lettuce at the same time, the lions are supposed to fight to decide a winner. The lions had to fight with stylistic lion moves instead of chaotic street fighting styles. The audience would judge the quality of the martial art schools according to how the lions fought. Since the schools' reputation was at stake, the fights were usually fierce but civilized. The winning lion would then use creative methods and martial art skills to reach the high-hanging reward.
Some lions may dance on bamboo stilts and some may step on human pyramids formed by fellow students of the school. The performers and the schools would gain praise and respect on top of the large monetary reward when they did well. Nowadays, performances to attain the red envelope are not as rigorous, but lion dance troupes still have the onus of making a good show or face the consequence of an unhappy client.
During the 1950s-60s, in some areas with high population of Chinese and Asian communities, especially the Chinatown in many foreign countries around in the world, people who joined lion dance troupes were “gangster-like” and there was a lot of fighting amongst lion dance troupes and kung fu schools. Parents were afraid to let their children join lion dance troupes because of the “gangster” association with the members. During festivals and performances, when lion dance troupes met, there would be fights between groups. Some lifts and acrobatic tricks are designed for the lion to “fight” and knock over other rival lions. Performers even hid daggers in their shoes and clothes, which could be used to injure other lion dancers’ legs, or even attached a metal horn on their lion’s forehead, which could be used to slash other lion heads. The violence got so extreme that at one point, the Hong Kong government had to put a stop to lion dances completely.
Now, as with many other countries, lion dance troupes must attain a permit from the government in order to perform lion dance. Although there is still a certain degree of competitiveness, troupes are a lot less violent and aggressive. Today, lion dance is a more sport-oriented activity. Lion dance is more for recreation than a way of living. But there are still plenty of troupes who still practice the traditional ways and taboos of the lion dance as it is practiced in the past.