The Asian diaspora has brought many cultures and traditions to every continent. In America, the hidden art and history of lion dancing is still fighting for its exposure.
If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, you might have noticed these wild costumes of dragon-like creatures with big, bulging, scary eyes and a flap for a mouth roaming around the streets. You might have even heard the boom of the drums loud enough to shake buildings. No, you haven’t been transported into a fantasy land, but in fact you’ve encountered a dance troupe performing the traditional lion dance.
“Although its specific origins have been lost in the mists of time, most historians believe lion dancing began in the late Han Dynasty (206 B.C. - 220 A.D.), when lions were brought to Northern China from Central Asia as gifts for the emperor and representations of the beast began to be incorporated into existing traditional dances,” said Paul Kay for Swire Properties.
And the form of entertainment only grew from there. Often in celebration of Lunar New Year, many cultures throughout East and Southeast Asia perform this dance, including Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean communities. It is regarded as a symbol of good luck and many blessings.
“It is to chase away the negative energy,” Troupe leader Jun Le said in an interview with Mothership Singapore. “[Lion dancing] also bring blessing to the family, bring luck … to give the client a blessing for the environment.”
“Actually, for lion dancing. We don’t need special occasions. Some people they hire us for housewarmings, for weddings, for funerals — for all sorts of reasons, they can hire lion dance, so long as they feel they want something to bring out the atmosphere for that event,” added Stella Chua, 29.
Growing up Vietnamese-American, I have always admired lion dancing. Well, once I understood the dance and got over my fear of their costumes, that is. In a culture that looks to Americanize and assimilate those who are different, even the smallest of traditions can reveal an unexpected tie to your familial heritage. When I see lion dances, I feel an immense pride in my culture, my community and my identity. It is a full body experience that young people like me are looking to preserve.
Regrettably, lion dancing is not a sustainable career for the dancer. Many lion dancers are volunteers, fueled only by their passion for the art. Especially after the COVID-19 pandemic, dance troupes are struggling to sustain themselves. If you are looking for something fun, exciting, and culturally rich to fill your next event, consider hiring your local lion dancing troupe or showing your support by giving them a donation.