Not taking it lion down

SINGAPORE - Call it a question of pride.

In a situation mirrored in the latest Jack Neo film, The Lion Men, there is a divide in thinking between lion dance troupes here.

On one side, there are those who want to keep things traditional: To keep to fixed routines accompanied by the percussion of drums and cymbals, and to stay true to centuries-old styles, even if it means dying out.

On the other, troupes that believe their art must evolve and cater to audience demands.

In the world of lion dances, these troupes are pushing the envelope - incorporating elements of pop music, lighting effects and hip hop.

The lions of Tian Eng Dragon and Lion Dance Centre, for example, will dance to any music - from Psy's Gangnam Style to tracks by Beyonce and Lady Gaga.

Their lions also break out into lock-and-pop moves like hip-hop dancers.

Mr Daniel Lim, the troupe's head coach, says: "We try to do whatever the customer wants. After all, they are the ones paying.

"Some are tired of traditional lion dances. They want something fresh, something exciting. We also want to challenge our members and let them learn new things."

Mr Lim adds that several of the troupe members are in their teens and 20s, and know how to perform hip hop and K-pop moves. "Why not let them show off, and please our customers?"

Sticking to their traditional roots is Jin Long Lion Arts Association Singapore, which has turned down six requests last year and two this year to perform to the tune of Gangnam Style.

They have also rejected bids to perform to hip-hop music.

Says troupe leader, Mr Zhuo Wei Hao: "Other troupes can do what they want. But for us, it's important to preserve the cultural elements of lion dance.

Each lion, he says, has a "soul" which must be respected.

"Before a new lion is used, it must go through a special ceremony where someone 'dots' its eyes, thereby giving it 'life'.

"That's why we don't want to introduce new elements and dilute our tradition."

The 32-year-old coach adds: "Also, we don't want just to follow the flavour of the month. Lion dance has been around for hundreds of years and deserves to be protected."

The troupe has allowed some change. Last year, it bought two lions that feature LED lights. This type of lion first made an appearance about five years ago and can be quite striking during night performances or when a room is darkened.

Mr Zhuo says: "We are fine with such lions because the lights do not affect the form and moves of traditional lion dance."

Most of its 70 performances this year still involved traditional lions. The LED lions were used only twice.

Mr Zhuo admits that the troupe has been getting fewer bookings in recent years, yet he remains defiant of changing.

"Even if we have to die out, at least we protected what was important," he says.

Mr Lim acknowledges that tradition is important.

"But we have to be practical. The world is changing and fewer people can appreciate things like lion dance. We have to keep things fresh if we want to stay alive."

Apart from incorporating new elements into its lion dance performances, Tian Eng Dragon and Lion Dance Centre has also diversified its services outside of the Chinese New Year period.

It provides stiltwalkers dressed as harlequins, as well as mascots of Santa Claus, snowmen and even dancing Christmas trees for the yuletide period.

Mr Lim says: "Our main objective is to make our customers happy.

"There's nothing wrong in doing what the customer wants."

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