“You going to join us for the line dancing?” Joe asked us a few weeks ago.
“Eh?” I responded. I had no idea that Joe and Emma were into rhinestone belts and cowboy boots, but hey, we may have known them over 20 years but that was no guarantee that we knew everything about them.
“Yes, they do line dancing as part of the Chinese New Year celebrations. We take the kids along every year to BVII (note to reader: pronounce this beeveetwo).”
“Really?” I had visions of Chinese people in cheongsams line dancing to their own traditional music. Then the penny dropped. He meant Lion Dance! I’m afraid Ian and I will now call this special event ‘line dancing’ for the rest of our lives.
So, on Sunday we headed off to a shopping mall called Bangsar Village 2 to see the public display of a lion dance. Staff were on hand to seat the visitors on white plastic chairs they had set up around an avenue of head high totem poles that had thin plinths on top, each as wide as two human feet.
The sound hit us long before the spectacle. Young men dressed in bright red nylon paraded in from the street and in amongst us clashing cymbals. This was to herald the arrival of the lions as well as to ‘space clear’ the mall, getting rid of any negative energy from the mall. All the little kids that sat cross-legged on the floor, and me, put their fingers in their ears. My tinnitus and loud noises simply don’t mix.
The lions appeared at last as four lithe young men wearing white fringes on their red nylon trousers, who then proceeded to don the pantomime horse-cum-lion outfit, one for the back and hind legs, one for the head and front legs. After a bit of prancing around they leapt onto the first four pillars, perfectly co-ordinated, back half on the last two, front half on the first. As if that was not spectacular enough, they then danced from pillar to pillar, often with the back end holding the head end aloft so the lion stood on its hind legs. All this accompanied by the banging of drums and the clashing of cymbals. They demonstrated both strength and a feat of acrobatics that would probably win Britain’s Got Talent. They were funny too, with the lion pretending to fall off a few times and a lot of bum waving and ear waggling. We had two lions to entertain us that morning. They launched mandarin oranges at the crowd to much delight and then received red envelopes of money (ang pow) from many of the children in the audience. The deafening and awe-inspiring performance lasted almost an hour and I know I was still unable to hear in one ear for at least an hour afterwards.
Though my mate Wikipedia claims that the first lion dance may not have originated in China at all, it is generally believed that the lion will ward off evil monsters and bring fortune and good luck to businesses. It is no surprise to learn that lion dances tend to be performed by those who practice Kung Fu.
We thought the rest of the day would be pretty quiet and headed for the Bird Park. I don’t really like seeing animals in capitivity and though this is supposed to be the largest free flight aviary in the world, I’d have liked to see them wash some of the bird doodoo off all the handrails and many of the leaves… yuk!
After, we headed to the National Monument. My pa wanted to see it as it commemorated those who died in the struggle for freedom during World War II, mostly against the Japanese. As we wandered around we could hear the sound of drumming from somewhere in the sculpture park below. We just had to go and take a look and have a listen.
Two women were dancing, seemingly impromptu, to the music coming from a semi-circle of benches where young and old, local and foreign folk all sat with a drum between their knees. We approached and sat down towards the end of the bench. In seconds we’d been invited to pick up a drum and join in. Then we saw a bag of instruments, things to rattle and shake that were perfect for youngsters. A guy was playing a didgeridoo and it looked like someone was actually in charge. Well I’ve attended and adored a few drumming workshops at the WIN conference over the last few years and though I knew I was rubbish at anything that involved one of my limbs doing one thing while another did another, I thought, hey, I’m driving in a place I didn’t want to, I’ve drummed in a workshop, I can do this too. So far out of my comfort zone that it’s the Lands End to my John o’Groats but I wasn’t likely to hurt anyone and… they did ask! So, dragging Ian along because I knew he’d be brilliant, I moved over to squeeze in between two blokes who looked like they knew what they were doing.
“You’ll have to help me,” I said. “I’m not very good.” Positive from the outset, me.
They grinned. “You’ll learn,” said the European on my left.
A tall white guy walked to the centre and handed me a large djembe, fringed with red string.
“That’s the teacher’s drum,” said the guy on my right. “You are lucky.”
I just noticed that it was very big. I knew I had to tip the base slightly to let the sound out and to clench it between my thighs. I also knew I could use my whole flat palm on the middle bit of drum and just my fingers on the side to make the different sounds.
“One, two, three, four!” commanded the teacher, who by now I knew was called Paul. And they were off. I looked at the men beside me. One flat hand, one fingers, one flat hand, one fingers. I tried to copy. Four beats, I think that’s what they are called. I have never studied music. My piano teacher begged me to leave before Grade 1 saying, “please leave, Joanna. I have a queue of others waiting for lessons.” I also knew how uncoordinated I was. But I can count to four.
After a few minutes, red in the face and with sweat trickling down my back Paul came over to me, picked up my hands and used them to beat the rhythm properly. “Walk, the, fat, dog. Walk, the, fat, dog,” he said.
Right, I thought. Walk the fat dog. Walk the fat dog. And I began. Boy it was tough. The only way I could stay on track was to repeat that phrase over and over and not look up. The dancers began again. I was distracted. I looked up and suddenly my left hand and right hand forgot their script. Paul started to video and I furrowed my brow in concentration, rivers of perspiration coursed from my neck to the bench and I walked that darn dog over and over again. Perfectly.
After 10 minutes my left thumb was blistered. The chap on my left told me I was holding my hand wrong. I blamed that red string. It just got in the way. I swapped hands. Bad idea. I completely lost the ability to walk the dog. I reverted and played through the pain. On and on and on. How long was this going to last? After 20 minutes my legs began to shake from clenching the drum. My jaw ached from the way I’d been inadvertently clenching that too. I was in pain but the exhilaration of actually conquering a fear and doing something in full view of others was amazing. The way the music reverberated and filled my body and made me grin involuntarily was electrifying. 25 minutes and we were done. I stood up, my legs wobbling like crazy and handed Paul back his drum.
“Thank you,” I said. “I enjoyed that. I’m not very good though.”
Paul held out his hand. “I’ll teach you,” he said. “We do this every week from 5.30-7.30.”
I actually think he meant it.
Ian handed over his drum more reluctantly. “I’ll definitely be back,” he said.
And we will.