Understanding the Chinese lion dance – The lion dance isn't unique to Lunar New Year and is often a part of festival celebrations. It's featured in everything from welcoming parties to workplace feng shui blessings to shop-opening ceremonies.
While at first glance the dance seems to be a cacophony of noise and whirlwind of blurry lion head swinging, it's actually a complicated and significant series of, at times, difficult movements.
To better understand the dance, we teamed up with Allan Ha, the dragon and lion dance team leader at Ha Tak Kin Martial Art Society in Hong Kong. Ha and his team show and explain the basic moves of one of the most popular lion dances -- the "drunken lion." The dance reflects a popular Chinese martial arts technique, the drunken fist.
Chasing its tail – Following the opening ritual, a sequence of open-closed footwork begins -- dancers jump up and down alternating open legs and closed legs. This is demonstrated admirably here (left) by Chiu Po Ying, age nine.
Then, the lion will playfully chase its own tail -- or another lion's tail if there are two lions. This step (pictured middle and right) demonstrates the happiness and energy of the lion.
Moving in for the kill – A happy, energized lion is now keen for a drink -- this is the drunken lion dance, after all. On stage a large wine bottle captures the lion's attention. The lion dancers move slowly toward the target, demonstrating a fair bit of suspicion. This imitates a lion's mindful steps upon spotting a target -- biting, smelling and circling the bottle to ensure it isn't a trap.
The drunken lion – After a check around to make sure the coast is clear and no one will steal its prize, the lion stomps to show its pleasure before greedily gulping down the wine.
Capturing its prey – All seems fine. The lead dancer steps his or her foot on the prey.
"Pay attention to the lion's expression," says Ha. "See how the eyes are closed when it's smelling the wine. Lion dancers will drag the wine bottle away from its original position, just as a real predator would do."
Happy, drunk lion – Now for the drunken bit. The dancers wobble from side to side and fall on the floor comically.
Upon reclaiming its composure after a few falls or stumbles, the lion moves on to demonstrate "cross-legged footwork" -- this is a sign of the lion's happiness and involves the dancers jumping up and down, crisscrossing their legs.
"The lion dance may seem as easy as whirling the lion head around," says Ha. "But it's really hard work. You can't use your arms and all you can see, most of the time, is via the mouth of the lion."
Bowing out – Finally, the dancers complete the dance by performing another bowing ritual.
"In addition to the two dancers, there are also a drummer, a gong player and three cymbalists," says Ha. "The often neglected instrument players are as important as the dancers. They give the beats and rhythms to the lion."
"Baby lions" – A standard lion head weighs about five pounds, or 2.2 kilograms. A more traditional head is about twice that weight.
These young and proud performers, Keong Ka Ching (left) and Chiu Po Ying, ages five and nine respectively, are only old enough to play the "baby lion."
Inside the lion's head – As well as dance steps, the head dancer needs to adjust the lion's expressions according to its various movements.
While swooshing the head around, the dancer has to pull a string to control the eyelids and ears of the lion.