Source: Al Jazeera
Lion Dance Unites Malaysians: A Multiracial Celebration of Tradition and Unity
BY: Michelle Liew
In the vibrant and diverse nation of Malaysia, the traditional art of lion dancing has evolved into a symbol of unity, breaking ethnic boundaries and bringing Malaysians of various backgrounds together. The Muhibah Lion Dance Troupe, founded in 1984, stands as a testament to this unity, as it welcomes members from different ethnicities, embodying the spirit of "muhibbah," which translates to friendship and camaraderie in Malay.
A Cultural Fusion
Mariam Abdul Nazar, a Malaysian Muslim, discovered her passion for lion dancing at the age of 13, drawn to the lively energy of the music and the endearing charm of the lion figures. Lion dancing, traditionally associated with Chinese culture, has become a cross-cultural phenomenon in Malaysia. At the Khuan Loke Dragon and Lion Dance Association, where Mariam trains, the team is a diverse mix of Malays, Indians, and even a few foreigners.
Lunar New Year Celebrations
The Lunar New Year, a festive period celebrated by Chinese communities worldwide, witnesses lion dance troupes in high demand. The lion, symbolizing good luck in Chinese tradition, is believed to usher in prosperity and ward off evil spirits. Families and businesses across Malaysia hire lion dance troupes to perform, creating an atmosphere of joy and optimism that extends beyond cultural boundaries.
Sarah Thiang, a spectator of lion dance performances, emphasizes the inclusivity of lion dancing, saying, "It's part of Chinese culture. It's fun and really puts me in a festive mood." The multiracial composition of lion dance troupes reflects the cultural integration and acceptance that has become an integral part of Malaysia's identity.
The acrobatic aspect of lion dancing, especially performances on high poles, adds an exciting dimension to the tradition. The daring feats require agility, strength, and precise coordination, making every performance a thrilling spectacle. The evolution of lion dancing in Malaysia has played a significant role in shaping the global standards for acrobatic lion dance, with Malaysian Siow Ho Phiew pioneering high pole sequences in the 1990s.
Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, has emerged as the lion dance capital of the world. Master Siow, a renowned coach and craftsman of lion heads, has influenced lion dance communities globally. Harlen Lee, an instructor in Hawaii, attributes his lion dance mastery to training in Malaysia and emphasizes the pride in sharing Chinese culture with people from diverse backgrounds.
Music as the Heartbeat
Eric Fong, secretary general and coach of Khuan Loke, highlights the importance of music in lion dancing, calling it the "heartbeat" of the performance. Beyond physical prowess, lion dance is an art of emotion, with performers using subtle gestures to express playfulness, excitement, or ferocity. The training regimen is rigorous, with Fong and his team dedicating themselves to mastering both the physical and emotional aspects of lion dancing.
Despite the demanding schedule, lion dance enthusiasts like Fong are committed to preserving tradition, even if it means sacrificing personal celebrations during the Lunar New Year. Fong's dedication reflects a shared understanding among lion dance practitioners – they are not just keeping tradition alive but also fostering a sense of belonging and unity among Malaysians.
Lion dancing in Malaysia has transcended cultural boundaries, becoming a symbol of unity and friendship among Malaysians of different ethnicities. The Muhibah Lion Dance Troupe and other multiracial teams exemplify the inclusive spirit that defines Malaysia, making lion dancing not just a Chinese tradition but a national celebration of diversity and cultural harmony. As Malaysians come together to celebrate the Lunar New Year through lion dancing, they showcase the power of tradition to unite people and strengthen the fabric of their multicultural society.