Underneath The Whiskers, Dancers From Many Backgrounds Keep Lion Dance Tradition Alive

Published: Thursday, August 4, 2016 - 4:09pm
Updated: Friday, August 5, 2016 - 6:36pm
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(Photo by Annika Cline - KJZZ)
Children pose with the lion dancers after a performance at C-Fu Gourmet.
(Photo by Annika Cline - KJZZ)
The Arizona Martial Arts Lion Dancers use costumes specially made in China.

The Lion Dance is a Chinese tradition. You may have seen the large, ornate, often brightly colored lion heads at Chinese New Year festivals, or at other special occasions, like a recent Lion Dance in Chandler.

In front of C-Fu Gourmet, two red lions began waking up. They looked like they were stretching and yawning as dancers under the fabric began to stand and move. One dancer controled the head while another controled the tail.

The dim sum restaurant recently changed hands, and the new owners asked the Arizona Martial Arts Lion Dancers to perform here to bring good luck and prosperity. The lions began by bowing to the front door.

“Then if you notice, when we came in, we bowed to the cash register. Why? Because that is where the money of the establishment is coming and going,” said Peter Pena, the group’s teacher.

The dancers work together to walk, bow, even jump on each other’s shoulders to make it look like the lion is standing on its hind legs.

They interact with an audience enjoying dumplings and noodle rolls. People chuckle when the lions seem to want a bite of their lunch, but Pena said every movement has a purpose.

“When the whiskers go over the person’s head, that means that the lion is blessing that table or that person,” he said.  

After some picture-taking, the costumes come off, revealing the dancers underneath.

“A lot of people notice we are not Asian. Far from it,” said Becky Bohanon.

She and her husband, Kevin, are lion dancers. 

“But we are very honored to take part in it. It’s an amazing thing and I’m glad we were able to share with it,” she said.

Like others in the group, they’ve been doing this for years. Most of the dancers don’t have Chinese roots. 

“Our lion dance knowledge was pretty nil, you know just what we’ve seen on TV and the occasional kung fu movie,” said Kevin Bohanon.

Pena is Chinese-Hispanic and has been studying lion dance for decades. While he wants to preserve the customs he was taught, he believes the art form should be open to anyone.

“People still think that, 'oh, a good lion dance team is mainly only Asian,'” Pena said. 

But it’s not uncommon for outsiders to seek out and learn customs from other places.

Ted Solis is an ethnomusicologist at Arizona State University and studies music as it relates to culture. He said as things like music and dance migrate, there’s a lot to consider, like figuring out how to participate in these art forms without appropriating them.

“What is our goal in all this?” Solis said. “Are we trying to preserve the culture? Are we trying to give people an enjoyable experience? Are we trying to do both?”

These are tough questions to answer. In his own student ensembles, the musicians are often not from the same ethnic background as the music they’re playing.

“They may not have come directly from being immersed in such a culture, but they know it’s there and they have a certain connection to it - maybe emotional or romantic connection to it - and they want to capture it,” he said.

For Kevin Bohanon, part of the joy is to connect back with the Chinese community, like he did here at C-Fu Gourmet.

“It feels so wonderful to be able to share their culture and to show that it spanned the boundaries of race and countries,” he said. “And that’s just an awesome feeling.”

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