IT was the third day of Chinese New Year and the local mall was packed with shoppers and holidaymakers. The atmosphere was busy, with red floral decorations and music adding to the festive mood.
A lion dance troupe from Kun Seng Keng (KSK) Muar was scheduled to perform at 5pm. It was 4.20pm and security had cordoned off the performance area, but there was no sign of anyone from the troupe yet.
Ten minutes later, a team of young men rolled in metal tracks and jongs and started setting up the platform. Low Tong Sheng, a lion head dancer was part of the team today. He is small in stature – most lion head dancers are – but worked just as hard as anyone else.
A crowd had gathered around the performance space. The KSK troupe worked hard and quickly, seemingly ignoring the growing crowd. Efficiency is already ingrained into the boys; they have been trained to set up in three minutes for any performance.
“All of us in the troupe including lion dancers have to help carry and set up the equipments like the jong and musical instrument,” said Low. “We time ourselves to not exceed three minutes during set up.”
This discipline is shown in the results they achieve. KSK has 66 world lion dance championships under their belt, and Low himself has five world titles to his name since he started competing professionally 10 years ago.
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However, all that didn’t come easily. Low and his troupe members spend up to six hours training daily when preparing for a competition, such as the Genting National Lion Dance Championship last year. He had to give up his full-time job as a mechanic because of the hectic training and performance schedule.
“Most of my team mates are working with KSK in administrative posts, or with people in the lion dance industry,” he said. “It’s very difficult to find a full-time job elsewhere because the work hours are generally inflexible.”
Five minutes before the performance, the four lion dancers including Low scheduled to perform sat on the floor next to their lion costumes. In contrast to the noisy crowd, the boys weren’t talking to each other or making any excessive movements. Perhaps they are focusing on the coming performance. When it comes to lion dancing on eight-feet high jongs, all it takes is one misstep to make what can possibly be a fatal error.
A misstep – or rather, two – was what caused Low the title at the competition last year. He fell during practice and suffered a deep gash on his forehead, which needed 12 stitches. But after one week in bed, he was back at practice. The stitches weren’t removed yet but he was determined to make it work. After all, he had spent so much time training.
“My partner asked if I wanted to withdraw from the competition, and I said no. We had been training so hard and I wanted to take on the challenge even though the pressure was high,” said Low.
However, Low fell again during the competition. It was an unlucky time for Kun Seng Keng because their two other teams also fell. The title ultimately went to Hong Teik Dragon and Lion Dance Association from Alor Setar.
All’s fair in love, war, and lion dance competitions it seems, because Low does not allow the defeat to put him down. “Falling is normal. If you don’t fall, you don’t grow,” he said. “Even when we fall, we have to pull ourselves up to complete the show. I’m satisfied as long as the show is completed. ”
At the mall, KSK did not fail to live up to their reputation. Except for a minor mistake involving a trick with a bench stool, the routine was flawless. The crowd clapped and cheered throughout the 30-minute routine. Adults and children alike patted the lion heads for luck, and posed for photographs with the lions. Low and his team mates have just completed yet another successful show.
The day wasn’t ending yet though, as Low had yet another performance that night. It was the busiest season for lion dance, and the team work their fingers to the bones, giving their best each time.
But the satisfaction showing on their tired faces is perhaps an indication that it’s all worth it. “It’s tiring, but we will still put on a good show. It’s what lion dancers do,” said Low.
Watch the Young Lions series