Malaysia Has Turned Lion Dancing Into a Gravity-Defying Extreme Sport
Meet some of the troupes taking an ancient tradition to new heights. (Atlas Obscura)
At the biannual Genting World Lion Dance Championship in Malaysia in 2018, a series of 21 poles, ranging from four to eight feet in height, lined the arena. On top of each one was a platform 12 inches in diameter. Suddenly, a pale blue Chinese lion with a white fur trim jumped up onto the stilts to the rhythm of a beating drum and clanging cymbals. Bucking its head and rearing up on its hind legs, the lion seemed to leap effortlessly between the poles—some as far as 6 feet apart. The Chinese lion dance is meant to look endearing and whimsical, but underneath the colorful costume, there were two immaculately coordinated performers who had been training in stunts and acrobatics for nearly a decade.
“As lion dancers, we always go by this motto that 10 years of practice is equal to one minute on stage,” says Calvin Zhen, who currently plays the lion head for Leung’s White Crane Dragon and Lion Dance Association, a competitive team from San Francisco. Zhen, now 24, performed as a drummer for that 2018 competition, and has been training in the sport since he was 13. “When I was a little kid my grandpa used to take me out to all the little festivals in Chinatown, just to see the lion dance and see what the culture is like,” says Zhen. “I just fell in love with the lion dance ever since.”
The lion dance is performed to ring in luck and prosperity, and is a common fixture at the Lunar New Year and other celebrations such as birthdays, weddings, or corporate events. The pantomime performance has always required a degree of style and athleticism, but over the past 30 years Chinese Malaysians have raised the stakes, turning the ancient tradition into an extreme sport. High-pole lion dancers must seamlessly jump between these tiny platforms while performing stunts and mimicking the playful nature of a lion. A single misstep—which happens frequently during competitions—could result in serious injury.