Lion dancers jumping high for Tet despite low pays

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Receiving fewer orders due to the economy going down, yet lion dancers in Ho Chi Minh City are still practicing hard to perform for the Lunar New Year, known in Vietnamese as Tet.

The artists said besides payments, the customers' joy keeps them going, so does the idea that the dance is a cultural aspect that needs to be upheld.

Nhon Nghia Duong (House of humanity), a major lion dance troupe in the city, has received less than 30 performing contracts, compared to more than 40 by the same time last year.

"But it's good is to see the bright faces of our customers," Quach Van Doi, a senior member, said in a Tuoi Tre report.

The troupe's headquarters at An Lac A Ward, Binh Tan District has been at full energy as it's only several days to the year of Snake.

"To many people, Tet means a chance for family gathering, but it is the busiest working days to us," Doi said.

He said his troupe usually has to make five or six big performances every day from the 23rd day of the last lunar month, when there are celebrations to send the Kitchen God to heaven to report families' ups and downs over the whole year.

"We would have to work from early morning to late at night, sometimes we were too tired to eat anything.

A usual training requires every two of them to climb and dance on poles nearly two meters high, one playing the head of the lion by leading all the dances and directing the mouth and eyes of the lion model to make it as active as a real one. The other playing the tail of the lion needs to be strong enough to support the lead performer in all the dances and swings.

The poles are more than three meters apart, which causes Le Hanh Nghiep, 21, a tail-lion performer, to feel "chilled" after every jump, those he already has eight years in the art.

"Pole dancing is one simple act in our everyday training.

But it needs at least half a year of one year practicing on the ground. Almost all pole dancers fell for several first times," Nghiep said.

He said a lion dancer needs to be "brave, strong and determined. One second losing focus will cost them a fall."

Nghiep said people only notice that the troupe has been busy on recent days but they have been practicing for the past six months actually, although orders have fallen short.

Most of the 100 members, ranging from between 15 and 40 years of age, have their day jobs and join the troupe out of interest, said the troupe leader Luu Kiem Xuong.

They practice almost every day, not receiving salaries but getting paid of around VND200,000 (US$9.6) share for each performance.

Those members who do not have a day job also help with making tools for training and performing to earn more.

Big troupes like Nhon Nghia Duong would be able to earn contracts up to VND40 million each, with customers at the top end being large businesses.

But expensive contracts are rare to find and the troupe is mainly called for small performances at families and small companies, Xuong said.

"There are many difficulties but we are still putting all our hearts and mind into the job as it is a sport associated traditional cultural meanings that need to be preserved," he told Tuoi Tre.

Hang Anh Duong, another popular lion and dragon dance troupe based on Lanh Binh Thang Street, District 11, has also been busy until 10 p.m. every day.

Deputy head of the troupe Tran Van Duc said the number of contracts has reduced by more than 20 percent and few of them big ones.

"But we are still practicing hard to make sure our service still satisfy the audience," Duc said.

Duc's troupe functions like a community project. Its more than 50 members of between 13 and 37 years old came mostly from street or disadvantaged children, and thus taking the troupe as their full-time business.

They receive monthly wages and performance shares, but only enough to make ends meet. They make and repair tools during the day and practice from dusk until night.

Duc said the troupe members made all their lions, dragons and other tools. They also make more than they need to sell to smaller troupes or interested people.

Insiders said lion dance troupes that want to make a living from the job earning big contracts of around VND30 million ($1,440) each need to keep being creative to have their signature performances.

Huynh Hoai Chung, the coach of Hang Anh Duong, said the success of the troupe comes from the members' love for martial arts and music.

"We don't have a specific performing style, but we make all acts as thrilling as possible to excite the audience," Chung said, cited by Tuoi Tre.

Nhon Nghia Duong, founded in 1973 as one of the oldest in Vietnam, also has all of its 100 members being artists or students of the Chinese martial art Shaolin. Many senior members have close Chinese origin themselves.

The troupe has won high awards at international arena thanks to their combinations of dance and martial arts, with successful acts such as breaking a coconut with hands or lying on a spike-board, and set several national records by climbing on the tallest pole, of 15 meters, and having four lions share one pole.

An engagement

For different reasons, lion dancers feel the job a mission that they can hardly let go.

Nguyen Van Au, 19, from Hang Anh Duong troupe, came from a poor family whose father died early, said the dance changed his life.

"I used to join some friends going around destroy things and disturb others. But once I fell in love with lion dance, I've been determined to live differently," Au said.

He said the job does not simply help him earn a living for himself and his family. "From a man of nothing, I have turned to one bringing joy to others and get applauded."

The idea of engagement is hold by an as young dancer as 13-year-old Nguyen Van Le, who is playing for Tai Anh Duong troupe in the neighboring Binh Duong Province.

"Practicing comes with regular incidents such as falling, earning a sprain or scratches are regular incidents. But whenever I fall, the joyful drum beats just urge me to stand up again," Le said.

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