Saturday, February 14, 2009

Lion's Blessings


For the last 24 years, Au's Shaolin Arts Society has been making the journey to Maui to bring in Chinese New Year by sharing traditional Chinese Lion Dance performances and Kung-Fu demonstrations across the island, occasionally venturing over to Molokai and Lanai to perform as well.

I've been making the journey with the family since I started my martial arts training seven years has been two years since
since I ceased training in order to heal some wounds I suffered, and two years since I've joined them full-time. I make the decision to go at the last minute, so it is a surprise to many of my brothers and sisters when I show up in Maui...they barely skip a beat: "Welcome back, brother."

It is difficult to describe the experience to someone who has not come along for the ride: 2 teams of 8-10 people, 50+ performances ranging from 1-6 hours in length over seven days. Playing Lion's head requires strength, stamina, agility, and creativity....imagine carrying and animating a 15-pounds paper-mache mask over your head, flirting with the crowd, becoming the lion...or, playing the tail by following your head player's footwork, keeping your head down, and crab-walking to keep the illusion of a
heavenly four-legged feline, engaging your audience for hours at at time....INTENSE. And that doesn't include the kung-fu demonstrations!

You find out a lot about your physical, mental, and emotional limits. If you survive the experience, you are hooked. For life.

This year we have an apprentice [rookie] on board from a sister school in Long Island, New York. He is athletic, talented, and physically very strong, though nothing could have prepared him for this...our first performance? A 5-hour marathon with a skeleton crew down Fort Street Mall in Chinatown Honolulu.

He survives, with a look that says "What-the-heck-was-that??" the end of the week, his grin tells us that he is hooked; he'll be back. Happened to our brother from Kentucky too, the whitest, most red-necked good 'ole country-boy Chinese person you have ever met ;-) ...he has made the pilgrimage for seven years now, his only experience of Maui being from inside the Lion...

I realize on my first day back, how much a part of me this has legs and shoulders feel the burn almost immediately, and my body hits the wall early, recognizes it like an old friend, and pushes through
happily. The drum beat moves me, infusing my movements with the spirit of the lion.

The lion dance drum beat sets the rythym of the year, cleansing the negative energy of the past year through the very pores of my skin, and clearing the way for the blessings of a new year to be welcomed in. Reflecting over the sometimes spectacular mess that has been my life over last 2 years,
it is clear to me how much this rythym has been missing...when I get back on the drums I quickly remember the old beats and riffs, and am soon smiling as I start to throw in new riffs here and there. Hello creativity, where have you been? Nice to meet you again....

Playing for the children is what makes us happiest; they are scared and thrilled and happy all at the same time, and they love to feed the Lions their lai-see offerings for good luck. Young and old alike squeal with delight as the Lions nibble hands, legs and the occasional small child on their way to the red envelopes and lettuce offerings.

We get to be superstars for a week each year; some of the people in our audience have watched the Au children grow up, and have been following us for 15- 20 years... and despite the inevitable behind-the-scenes drama that will unfold when bodies and minds in such close proximity are pushed to the limit, we all grin when it is over. The bond that is formed when you share an intense collective experience goes beyond words. Each of us walks a little taller, feels a little stronger on the other side of Chinese New Year's celebrations ...walking in the knowledge that if we can do that....we can do anything.

And thus, a new year begins....


  1. Some of this reminds me of Gurdjieff, who believed in attaining enlightenment through physical labor, some of which incorporated dance and movement.

    Admittedly, he was a dark (and to me, at times dubious) character, but my point is that often through these types of acts, repetitive or well-known as they may be -- when you physically (and emotionally/spiritually) "push through" vis-a-vis movement, you DO enter a more enlightened state.

    In any case, I'd like to see this some day. :)

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