By Jasmine Hoe
Clad in a bright yellow and red costume, second-year School of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering student Jacky Pang peeks out at the large crowd for the last time before crouching down and covering himself with a thick, textured cloth called the lion back.
As the “lion tail”, Pang prances around the stage in darkness throughout the performance. He has to depend only on the drum beats and the movements of the “lion head” in front of him to execute the routine.
Pang is part of NTU Dragon and Lion Dance Troupe that performed at the school’s Cultural Activities Club Member’s Night last December. It was his first lion dance performance since joining the troupe in August.
“I’ve always wanted to try out lion dance,” said the 22-year-old. “So when I heard NTU had a lion dance troupe, I jumped at the opportunity.”
More young participants
Pang is one of the 15 new members who joined the troupe last year, a five-fold increase from the three members who joined in 2016. The troupe currently has 23 members.
This is in line with a larger national trend, where interest in performing lion dances is slowly gaining popularity here, especially among the young.
In November 2016, The Straits Times (ST) reported an increase in the number of registered lion dance clubs in Singapore from 311 in 2015 to 323 in 2016.
ST also reported that of the 10,000 people who were actively involved in lion dance, many were young people.
NTU Dragon and Lion Dance Troupe president Bryan Chan, 23, has seen a similar rise in lion dance participation among NTU students in the last two to three years, despite witnessing a downward trend in the last decade.
The rise in primary and secondary school troupes has changed the image of lion dance as traditional and something that young people cannot be involved in, said the third-year School of Physical and Mathematical Sciences student.
Formed in 2003, the troupe has been receiving an increasing number of invitations for performances on an ad-hoc basis, performing for external events and companies.
There are about 30 to 50 performances per year, with Chinese New Year being their busiest period, where they have performances every day.
Change in perception
Member Natasha Lim said in the past, people often associated lion dance with the ah beng (Hokkien for gangster) culture, but this is not the case now.
“We may look fierce on the outside but the troupe members are just the normal people we see every day,” said the second-year School of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering student who joined the troupe last August.
The 20-year-old added: “Sometimes I see people much younger than me performing, which makes me think that if they can do it, so can I.”
For first-year School of Computer Science and Engineering student Ang Yong Loong, it was his friends in secondary school who first encouraged him to join lion dance as a co-curricular activity.
It was not long before he grew to love performing.
“When the lions play around with the audience, it brings joy to people around which makes me feel really good,” said the 21-year-old, who has been performing for six years.
Discipline is key
Like any other form of performing arts, lion dance requires hard work and physical endurance, said troupe member Lim.
Most members have to go through at least three months of training before they are allowed to perform.
The NTU troupe’s training typically starts off with intensive cymbal training, where members train their arm muscles and learn the rhythm of hitting the cymbals. This is followed by practice drills, such as running and jumping on the spot, before learning the dance itself.
“It can be as tiring as any high intensity sport, as the lion dancers have to coordinate dancing and controlling the lion,” said Lim.
Even a seemingly simple task like hitting the cymbals requires lots of practice, and second-year School of Humanities student Benedict Teo knows this from experience.
He remembers clanging the cymbals out of sync from the group during his very first performance in 2016, which happened a few weeks after he joined the troupe.
“It felt very embarrassing, but that memory has reminded me to quickly attain a basic competency so I don’t embarrass myself in the future,” said the 22-year-old.
A close-knit troupe
When mistakes are made, members of the close-knit troupe rely on each other for encouragement.
“It’s common to make mistakes, especially for stunts,” said first-year School of Materials Science and Engineering student Hung Hsi Chien.
Instead of scolding or blaming the one who committed the mistake, members encourage one another, and check if he or she is hurt, the 23-year-old added.
“It’s this sense of community that keeps me coming back,” said second-year Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information student Sarah Thong, 20, adding that the troupe forges strong bonds during practices and by having meals together.
On passing on the legacy of lion dance, Chan, the president of the troupe, said, “We’re looking for continuity — to keep this art (alive) and continue it beyond this troupe, so that even when we stop lion dancing, we know that others will continue it.”