More than 20 years ago, Henry Su turned his head at a stoplight on Kings Highway in Shreveport. He heard a familiar sound coming from a strip mall: numbers shouted in Cantonese. The sound pulled him into a small kung fu school, and what he saw would change his life. An ethnic-Chinese immigrant from Malaysia, Henry had seen kung fu plenty of times. What he'd never dreamed of was a classroom of Caucasians throwing kicks in unison while a Chinese man screamed orders at them. He signed up immediately.
Chinese martial artists do more than just throw punches and kick. They're a central element of Asian culture, and, at the time of the lunar new year, they dress in colorful robes and gigantic masks to perform the traditional lion dance. This new year, the Year of the Rooster in the cyclical Chinese calendar, Henry and the man who taught him still work together in the enterprise. Grandmaster Johnny Lee and Sifu Henry Su own martial arts schools in the Dallas area, and Henry's nephew John Su directs the lion dance team at Lee's White Leopard Kung Fu, which is featured during the Dallas Museum of Art's February Late Nights at the DMA celebration on Friday, when the troupe performs in the foyer.
Mystical lion creatures of all varieties, some in bright silk and sequins, others covered in shaggy crimson hair, twirl and jump and play to an infectious bass drum beat. As the show closes, the lions remove their capes and heads to reveal a gaggle of smiling, sweaty, predominantly Caucasian performers. The troupe covers quite an age bracket, ranging from under 10 to 40-plus. Its members are software engineers, gymnasts, college students and martial artists. Yet inside the masks, the cultures and personalities of the dancers assimilate into something larger, at once both authentically Chinese and entirely multicultural.
Lee's lion dancers combine two dances into one for their live performances, blending the dynamic and fluid dance of Northern China with the playful staccato of the Southern Chinese lion dance. Both share a vibrant, hollow, metallic drum beat accompanied by crashing cymbals, and both the Northern and Southern lions consist of two people, one controlling the head, the other the tail. This small-team setup distinguishes the lion dance from the mass-performance dragon dance and allows for more complex dance movements and applause-garnering lifts, in which the head dancer balances on top of the tail dancer to create a towering giant of a creature.
"Lion" is an inexact translation of the creature, which is purely mythical. The Chinese lion is a magical being that brings good fortune and prosperity to those around it. The dance tells an allegorical story in which the young hero, played by John Su, an international competitor and acrobat, tames the lions and coaxes them to perform tricks for the audience. Lucky audience members might get close enough to sneak a gift to the lion, usually money wrapped in red paper, a custom thought to guarantee prosperity for the entire year. The troupe finishes the performance with martial arts routines and fight scenes involving weapons and acrobatics and the Chinese wish for good tidings of the new year, "Gung hay fat choy!"
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