This year, the pandemic has cast a gloomy shadow over the Lunar New Year celebrations, particularly on the lion and dragon dancers.
Members of the traditional dance troupe face new challenges this year as boisterous performances involving dragons and lions have been restricted in Singapore.
While the annual Lunar New Year performances at Marina One have been put on a halt in the interest of public health and safety, we celebrate the lion and dragon dancers around the world, especially those facing difficulties in the new normal.
Join us as we meet, interview, and tag along with the daily routine of the performers from last year’s celebration at Marina One, the Singapore Xuan Wei Dragon and Lion Dance Troupe.
Founded by Mr. David Peng back in 2010, the troupe is composed of enthusiastic people who have a common love for the fire and art of the dragon and lion dance. More than just a dance troupe, they aim to nurture and spread the Chinese culture to the next generation of Singaporeans.
Meet the Troupe
We’ve had the privilege of speaking with the dance troupe founder himself, Mr. Peng. Come along as he lets us into the colourful and historic world of the lion and dragon dance.
(Disclaimer: This is not a verbatim transcript of the interview and is based upon the written notes and memory of the interviewer.)
Q: How did you get exposed to the art of the lion and dragon dance?
A: Every Lunar New Year, the public performances and drumming on the road have always fascinated me. We don’t get to see the lion and dragon dance every day but when they do make an appearance, it’s always so spectacular and grand. There’s also an annual inter-school lion dance competition at Ngee Ann City that I look forward to every year.
Q: How much time do you spend to practice your choreography?
A: The group meets twice a week to polish our moves. Skillful practices such as high poles take about three to five years to master. In our group, we have a strict training regime that follows Xuan Wei’s four core values of Discipline, Respect, Perseverance, and Teamwork.
Q: How do you determine who does what position during the dance?
A: As a beginner, everyone must learn the basics of the musical instruments (drums, cymbals, gongs) first. Once they have a grasp of music coordination, we will pick those whose size is suitable for the lion head, lion tail, and so on. After this, members go through basic lion dance practice which usually takes one to two years to master on average or just 6 months for the gifted ones. The team is then split into juniors and seniors to ease the training process.
Q: What do you enjoy most about the lion and dragon dance?
A: Definitely the atmosphere. With 30 years of experience, it’s still our passion for the craft that keeps us going.
Lion and Dragon Dance in the Face of a Pandemic
We tagged along the daily routine of the group to see what has changed since the pandemic ensued and how they are coping with these uncertain times.
A typical day begins at their warehouse where they prepare and gather all the costumes and props needed for their performance.
After offering prayers for a successful session, they make their way to their destination.
Since the restrictions only allow for lion dance performances at limited venues with less than 50 people only, the group’s bookings have been sparse and restrained lately. On top of that, all performers must adhere to social distancing measures and wear face masks at all times.
Today, we accompanied them to an office, part of the approved venues, as they perform the traditional lion dance and ‘Cai Qing’ (採青). With a literal translation of ‘pluck the greens’, the Cai Qing is the act of offering lettuce to the lion together with the music of the drums, cymbals and gongs. The performers would then split the greens to spread prosperity and joy to the space.
Q: How are things different pre-pandemic and now in terms of your daily routine?
A: Before the pandemic, we usually have 20 to 25 back-to-back performances daily during the 16-day Lunar New Year period. We meet at 8 a.m. to prepare and return as late as 8 or 9 p.m. Unfortunately, in today’s setting, we have reduced our members and have significantly lesser and smaller performances.
Q: What are some challenges you are facing with the industry?
A: We all hold full-time jobs and thus, it can be difficult to find a convenient place and time to conduct training after work. As noise is part of the essence of lion dance, it’s a big challenge to create awareness and train on normal days when people don’t appreciate the noise we make. Performing during an auspicious timing can be hard too as we need to split our teams when we have several locations to perform.
Q: Have you considered bringing lion dance performances online?
A: We’ve started to use our Facebook page as a platform to connect to our customers. Although, we have yet to explore the possibility of digital performances. We still feel that online performances lack the “feels” and it’s not as exciting as the live one. And as long as we can keep the tradition alive through live performances, we will continue to do so.
Q: Any words of advice to your audience, fellow and aspiring lion dancers?
A: Aside from saving and cultivating the Chinese tradition, joining a lion dance troupe is also a great way to meet like-minded peers and enjoy what you love doing together. By taking part in this distinguished craft, you can build physical and mental strength, gain knowledge and confidence, and unleash your true potential.
The Tradition Lives On
The pandemic may have ‘tamed’ the lion and dragon, but it certainly didn’t make this year’s Lunar New Year celebration any less merry or meaningful.
Here to bring you prosperity and good luck in the new normal fashion, the auspicious lion prances their way onto your screen. Here’s a glimpse of a lion dance performance by Singapore Xuan Wei Dragon and Lion Dance Troupe from 2019.
While the festivities have been toned down to a great extent this year, we continue to hope for better days ahead. In anticipation of next year’s jovial celebration, we have compiled this fun list of lion dance taboos for you to keep in mind beforehand.
Plus, join us for a trip to memory lane featuring these throwback photos from last year’s festive celebration at Marina One.
We know it’s been a tough couple of months for everyone. For a much-needed breather, visit the lush and tranquil gardens at Marina One. Our doors remain open to offer you a welcome respite amidst the topsy-turvy.