Into the Lion's Mouth
It is the last Saturday in September and the Brown University lion dance team is about to perform. Eleven students sit on the floor of Leung Gallery. The nine team members walk to the front of the room, seven Chinese, two Caucasian. Each wears a shirt bearing a black and white lion design on the front and the words "Brown Lion Dance" emblazed across the back.
The boys who will make up the two lions - Grant, John, Chris and Michael - wear bright yellow pants with orange and gold tassels encircling each leg, meant to mimic fur. The instrumentalists, Cisco and Larissa, wear black pants and black shoes, and Peter Quon, the teaser, sports a navy blue silk ...view middle of the document...
In ancient times, a creature called the Nien roamed throughout China, devouring man and beast. News of these atrocities reached a remote mountain village and prompted its inhabitants to seek protection from the mighty lion.
When the Nien finally stormed into the village, the lion intercepted him and the two beasts fought a terrible battle. The lion emerged victorious and the wounded Nien slunk away into the shadows of the forest, vowing to return in exactly one year to exact vengeance.
The year passed quickly. The people searched for the lion, but found that he now guarded the emperor's own quarters, thousands of miles away. The people despaired, but the wise men of the village proposed a plan. They would build a lion from cloth and bamboo. Two men would hide inside it, and frighten the Nien away.
When the Nien finally approached, the two men danced under the heavy layers of cloth, roaring and leaping toward it. And the Nien fled, terrified, leaving the villagers in peace, to marvel over the success of the very first lion dance.
The Brown University Illustrious Lion Dance Troupe began in 1992 when a student named Tse Kit Chan brought a lion head with him from his former high school. He found a second student to help him perform; then the An-Liang Association of Rhode Island donated another head, a set of cymbals and a drum. Since then the team has retired the original head and acquired three more: the first, in '96, a rainbow styled head from Hong Kong, the second, a golden lion head from Singapore in '97, the last, a red lion last year from Marin County, California.
In its nine years of existence, the Brown team has grown from two members to ten, then dropped to three, then swelled to its current fourteen. And now, as the team faces the loss of half its members with this year's graduation, its survival is once again up in the air.
In Chinese tradition, a reputable school of Gong Fu will always have a lion dance team. To form the team, the master of the school handpicks his most talented students, for traditionalists say that a school is only as good as its lion dance team, and a master only as good as the lead lion.
In the United States, however, lion dance and the martial arts do not always overlap. Some people join lion dance to rediscover their ethnic heritage, others perform to build upon a lifetime of cultural pride, and still others dance because they want to connect with a different culture. The Brown team accepts anyone who is willing to learn, partly because it wants to include people of all backgrounds, and partly because such a small team can't afford to be choosy. Sometimes its mantra offends the more traditional, and team captain Brian Fong must take the heat. "Once, after a performance, a man came up to me and said, 'You don't even deserve to have those heads.' That hurt… I knew that I was breaking years of tradition, decades of code. But we needed members."
Brian closes his eyes for a moment. "I...