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Lioness dance: breaking tradition with grace

BY :China Daily

UPDATED :2024-03-06

From top to bottom: The Nanxing Hexingtang Women's Lion Dance Team custom-made a purple lion head. Li Jiawen portrayed the lion's head in a lion dance performance. Zhong Ziying (front) is the team's drummer in many lion dance competitions. (Photo provided to China Daily)

Teenage girls defy tradition by forming a lion dance team, triumphing in competitions, inspiring others, and embracing their cultural heritage, Gui Qian reports.

Lion dance is a cherished tradition deeply rooted in South China's Guangdong province and among Chinese communities in Southeast Asian countries. Historically, this art form was exclusively practiced by men.

However, a unique team consisting entirely of teenage girls stands out among all the male groups — they are the Nanxing Hexingtang (南兴合兴堂) Women's Lion Dance Team from the town of Renhe in Guangzhou.

Zhang Zheliang, 26, the coach of the team, noted that nearly every village in Guangzhou boasts its own lion dance team. Yet, as of 2018, Hexingtang had only male participants.

"At that time, we noticed a decline in the number of young people practicing lion dance, so we accepted a few young girls," Zhang recalled. "But the journey was far from smooth for the girls."

Viewed as an act of defiance against tradition, some villagers would curse the girls and take away their props.

Zhang still remembers an incident when they were hired to perform for a family on the first day of Chinese New Year. When the family realized that it was the girls who would be performing, they erupted in anger and chased them away.

Feeling disheartened yet undeterred, Zhang and his teacher, Yu Weizhao, decided to formally establish a women's team to legitimize the female lion dance. They custom-made flags and banners inscribed with "women's team", crafted pink and purple lion heads, which are rarely seen in male lion dance, and even fashioned a lion head resembling the image of the female general Mu Guiying, a famous figure in Yue Opera.

"Although we recruited more girls and trained rigorously, we still had few gigs booked, so we decided to participate in competitions first. We hoped that after the girls won awards and proved themselves, they might be accepted by more people," Zhang explained.

Their breakthrough came in 2021 when the girls triumphed over all-male teams and won the first prize in a competition in Guangzhou's Baiyun district. The following year, at the 16th Guangdong Provincial Games, the girls once again clinched the top prize in the junior group representing Guangzhou.

Since then, they have continued to win awards. The team now boasts over 20 girls from several villages, ranging in age from 7 to 19, with their trophies and medals adorning a large cupboard.

In the recent Maofeng Mountain competition just before Spring Festival in Guangzhou, the team performed a routine titled "Tramping Over Mountains and Hills Step by Step". The performance showcased the lion leaping over benches, climbing ladders set up as mountains, stumbling, getting back up, and finally plucking greens.

"This performance mirrors the growth journey of these girls themselves as they navigate through numerous challenges," Zhang said.

Li Jiawen, 17, portrayed the lion's head in this performance. Lifting the heavy prop, she had to ascend to heights of at least 1.7 meters while skillfully conveying the rich facial expressions of the lion.

Behind Li's near-perfect performance is her dedication and hard work. Despite the demanding schoolwork, she attended the lion dance team's training sessions every Friday and Saturday from 7:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.. As soon as her high school final exams were finished, she was the first to return to the team to focus on competition preparation.

Committed to her training, Li pushed herself to achieve the lowest possible horse stance and maintain it for eight minutes without losing form. However, when she first joined the lion dance team in 2018, she struggled to hold the pose for even one minute.

Li shared that she found inspiration in the 2021 Chinese animated film I Am What I Am, depicting a group of young boys overcoming various obstacles to compete in the Guangzhou Lion Dancing championship. In the film, the boys perform the quincuncial piles dance, where performers dance atop 21 piles, some as high as three meters. She saw her own limitations when comparing herself to the boys, as most of her routines involved floor dances. "I know that quincuncial piles dance poses immense difficulty, but I still want to try practicing it. Why not?" she said.

Li was particularly moved by a character named Ajuan in the film, a talented girl forced to abandon lion dance because her family doesn't want a girl to do that. "I can relate to her. It's just that I'm luckier that I'm able to pursue lion dance as a lifelong career," she said.

Already certified as a lion dance coach, Li not only focuses on her own training but also helps train younger children. She plans to apply for a lion dance judge certificate in the future when she gains more experience.

"Practicing lion dance has changed me a lot," she said. "My life has become more purposeful and fulfilling. It has also taught me the value of unity and teamwork."

Indeed, lion dance requires seamless cooperation between team members. A typical solo lion dance comprises eight performers — the lion head, lion tail, one drummer, one gong player, and four cymbal players.

Zhong Ziying, 15, is one of the best drummers on the Nanxing Hexingtang women's team. While the girls train together and learn all the basics, Zhong's talent shines brightly when it comes to drumming. Her drumming is steady, enhancing ambiance and conveying emotions, which has led her to often take on the role of drummer in competitions.

Lion dance performances and competitions demand a drummer's intimate familiarity with the lion's movements and the ability to react to unforeseen circumstances. Zhong needs to make flexible and varied drumming changes according to each posture of the lion, such as crouching, bowing, and saluting.

"Practicing drumming really tests one's patience. When I repeatedly make mistakes, I often get frustrated, but I still want to keep training and learning. The more I learn, the more interesting it becomes, driving me to learn even more. Now, lion dance has become an indispensable part of my life," Zhong said.

"Lion dance is not easy, especially for girls, as it demands significant strength and mastery of martial arts movements," said Zhang, the coach. "However, girls possess unique advantages and can cultivate a distinctive style."

According to him, girls typically have a keen understanding of music, performing flawlessly in both lion and instrument roles. Furthermore, their superior physical flexibility allows them to complete maneuvers like splits.

Most importantly, their sensitivity and empathy enable them to capture the subtle expressions and behaviors of lions. For example, they can vividly portray a wide range of the lions' emotions and actions, from joy and anger to strolling, observing, grooming, playing with water, and even the cute appearance of lions being tipsy.

"Considering the girls' characteristics, we place greater emphasis on the narrative of their performances, even crafting a lion dance stage play depicting a young girl's journey of learning lion dance," said Zhang.

"When the team takes the show to primary schools, we see a growing number of young girls becoming interested in lion dance," he added. "This suggests the revitalization of the art form and reinforces our belief: ancient traditions should be passed down joyfully and openly."

Editor: Joyce