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World’s Best Lion Dance, Made In Malaysia

World’s Best Lion Dance, Made In Malaysia

Every Chinese New Year, there will be lion dances everywhere. These stunning performers dance and jump around to the beat of clashing drums and cymbals, carrying a large and heavy “lion” head.

Sin Chee Tack, manager of Yuen Wei Dragon and Lion Dance Group, says that the lion dance is unique welcomed by all Malaysians regardless of race.

Lion dances in Malaysia are widely accepted and recognized within all the ethnic groups because they represent the “bringing of fortune”.

Sin Chee Tack to TRP

He says that many events hire lion dance troupes to create a bustling, excited atmosphere.

They perform at weddings, grand openings, office parties, birthdays, and even once during the arrival of a VIP for a corporate event.

EVERYONE gets excited by lion dance performances, regardless of race.
(Credit: Yuen Wei)

But did you know that the breathtaking high pole lion dance is a uniquely Malaysian invention?

A man called Master Siow Ho Phiew is hailed as the inventor of the high pole performance, which was praised for adding a vertical dimension to showcase the fluidity and agility of the lion dance.

The practice first started with large upturned flower pots and short wooden poles.

A lion dance performer practicing in this photo from 1993.
(Credit: Albert Fong)

Eventually, as the performers got more skilled, the height of the poles were raised and more complex moves were added.

In 1992, together with the Muar Kunsengkeng, Master Siow Ho Phiew brought the high pole lion dance to the international stage.

Since then, the high pole lion dance is internationally known to be part of Malaysia’s unique charm and a testament to the ingenuity of the Chinese Malaysians.

In 1996, performers started performing on raised poles that were only about 6 inches in diameter.
(Credit: Albert Fong)

We spoke to Albert Fong, a trained performer now coach and deputy president of the Khuan Loke Dragon & Lion Dance Association to find out more about this.

Malaysia has many lion dance troupes that participated in local competitions to transform today’s high pole lion dance.

Albert Fong to TRP

Because of how popular the art was in the country, there are actually three different federations in Malaysia that host competitions which continuously pushes lion dance to greater heights.

The oldest is Malaysia Selangor & FT Dragon and Lion Dance Federation, which was founded in 1976, and their passion led them overseas to establish the International Dragon & Lion Dance Federation based in Beijing, China.

In fact, globally, the most prestigious and well-known lion dance competition is held biennially right here in Genting Highlands at the Genting World Lion Dance Championship! 36 of the best lion dance troupes from 15 different countries came together to compete for the championships in 2018.

Performers have to stand on small platforms, and sometimes on top of each other as well.
(Credit: Khuan Loke)

Malaysia is so well-known for our high pole lion dancing that Malaysian lion dancers even coach teams in other countries.

In fact, we have a Hawaiian team training with us here in PJ!

Albert Fong to TRP

However, countries like China, Taiwan, Singapore, and Myanmar are catching up to us quickly and are improving very fast.

Albert says that many of these teams have invented new techniques and moves to be used in the competitions.

In competitions, however, it’s not just about the “difficulty” of the jumps. The lion dance will be judged on the presentation of the story, music coordination, specialty moves, and even the expressions of the lions!
(Take note of the lion’s perky bum and curious ears in this video.)

Malaysians may be so used to seeing high pole lion dances that they forget the sheer athleticism performers have to possess in order to perform such moves properly. It’s turned from a street cultural dance to an extreme sport.

If the dancers are physically fit and brave enough, they can start high pole lion dance immediately. However, the performer has to jump 1.8m, and that distance makes beginners afraid.

Albert Fong to TRP
Frankly, if we needed to make these kinds of jumps, we’d be afraid too, especially since the diameter of the landing discs are only 32cm wide and often need to accommodate two pairs of feet!
(Credit: Albert Fong)
The new 2019 layout. Organizers update the layout of the poles once in awhile too, and uses bridges and wires to make things REALLY interesting.
(Credit: Albert Fong)

Should we worry that interest in the high pole lion dance would wane? Probably not, since Malaysia has won the Genting World Lion Dance Challenge Cup a full 13 times in a row.

In fact, there is a movement to get the high pole lion dance recognized by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage, which would be another addition to the list next to Malaysia’s Mak Yong theatre, Silat, and Dondang Sayang. If you’re interested, you can sign the petition [here].

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