The lion blinks its bulbous eye as it glides through the audience, its powerful poise is held together by two children hidden under the yellow and orange fabric.
Under the guidance of Julian Mar, the lion dancers, as well as the spoon, scarf and fan dancers, performed at the Chinese New Year Celebration in the civic centre on Sunday. The school teacher and coffee house owner took on the role as the lion dance instructor when he returned to his hometown.
Mar studied Pacific Asian studies and English at the University of Victoria and joined the kung fu club in the city. After a year, the club asked him to be in the lion dancing troupe for Chinese New Year.
“When I started learning it you had to do kung fu. Nowadays, modern lion dancing is more sporty,” Mar said. Many of his dancers cross-train by doing other activities, such as rugby, dance and volleyball.
The Lion Dance Clubhouse is located inside the Rupert Square Mall, in an open retail space, where 12 lion heads are propped up, lifeless without the young dancers to pull their strings that animate them.
Mar said usually only the senior students join the lion dance team due to their strength and agility to hold stances and for lifting the lion head.
There are a couple antique heads, brought over by the original Chinese immigrants who came to the North Coast to work at the cannery.
“I never found out who brought them because it goes back so far,” Mar said. The dancers don’t use these. The other vintage lion heads are made of wood and bamboo, but the modern ones are made of plastic and aluminum, the club only has a couple of the lighter version.
Growing up in Prince Rupert, Mar loved kung fu and wanted to try lion dancing, but there wasn’t a club for kids. After studying in Victoria, and then teaching English in Japan for six years, 25-year-old Mar returned to the North Coast.
“When I came back, I really wanted to lion dance and a bunch of the kids’ parents said ‘okay, maybe we can put it together with the Chinese school’,” he said. The tradition has expanded to include the Vietnamese community.
The dance club is his hobby. His days are full with teaching in the school district and running Java.cup with his wife Yoriko Yamaguchi, who he met while living in Japan. When he first started the dance club, they practiced once a week, but now that many of the dancers are familiar with their routine, they don’t meet as often.
Each of the lion dances has a story, Mar explained. The basic story is the lion wakes up, acknowledges the audience with three bows and then it has to overcome an obstacle, such as a poisonous snake, or a table that is in the way of the lion’s path.
“It’s supposed to represent people overcoming their troubles for the year. When the lion overcomes it there is some lettuce hanging on the end of the obstacle, the lion eats it and spits it out, symbolizing the lion sharing the wealth and dispersing the good luck — if you get hit by lettuce it’s good luck,” he said with a chuckle.
One of the most difficult stunts for the lion is the stack. Inside the clubhouse, he has a two of his dancers demonstrate the move. The seniors wear baggy yellow pants with orange fringes. One stands at the tail end, the other holds the head. They leap on a table, once they are balanced, the girl jumps onto the boy’s thighs and holds the lion head high.
The dancers practice the stunts over and over until it sticks. The lion dance club has since expanded to include the spoon dance for elementary aged girls. Mar’s sister used to do this dance, and he thought it would be an easy introduction into Chinese dance for the younger kids.
Then, he introduced a more intermediate style — the fan dance, for senior girls. The scarf dance was the most recent Chinese dance to be added to the roster, and it includes the junior high aged students in the performances. Mar learned the fan and scarf dance from a teacher in Vancouver and he brought the two styles back to Prince Rupert for Chinese New Year.
Mar said that growing up on the North Coast was a blessing.
“If I had grown up in Vancouver, there are so many clubs I probably wouldn’t have taken an interest because they probably wouldn’t need me to do it. Somebody asked me if I could do lion dancing in Prince Rupert and it motivated me because it’s infectious.”