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Malaysian lion dancers bring new spirit to ancient tradition

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – When her maternity leave ended, Mariam Abdul Nazar returned to work and her passion, lion dancing.

A Malaysian Muslim, she started learning lion dancing when she was 13, after accompanying her then 14-year-old brother to his training sessions.

“I was drawn to the energy from the music, especially the drums. And I thought the lions were cute, with their big, big eyes,” Mariam, a 27-year-old content reviewer, told Al Jazeera.

In multiracial Malaysia, lion dancing has become so popular that it is not just the country’s ethnic Chinese taking up the art.

The Muhibah Lion Dance Troupe, established in 1984, is the first multiracial lion dance group in the country. Its name, Muhibah, is from the Malay word “muhibbah”, which means a feeling of friendship or camaraderie.

People crowd together to watch a lion dance performance. They are smiling and cheering. Some look awed. Many are taking photos or filming on their phones. They are sitting or standing around Lunar New Year decorations including giant flowers.
Spectators at a shopping mall in Kuala Lumpur are enthralled by a performance, and some try to capture it on their phones [Florence Looi/Al Jazeera
At the Khuan Loke Dragon and Lion Dance Association, where Mariam trains, her teammates are made up of Malays, the ethnic majority in Malaysia, Indians, an ethnic minority, and a handful of foreigners.

Now a working adult and a new mum, Mariam finds it difficult to commit to the three-times-a-week training schedule, but she returns to help out during the Lunar New Year, one of the busiest times for lion dance troupes in Malaysia.

Festive mood
The lion is a traditional symbol of good luck in Chinese culture and lion dancing is believed to usher in good luck and prosperity while driving away evil and bad luck.

Chinese families and Chinese-owned businesses hire lion dancers to perform in their homes and offices, believing it will bring good fortune for the rest of the year.

Shopping malls also hire lion dance troupes to put on shows throughout the 15-day celebration as well as in the weeks leading up to the Lunar New Year.

“It’s a bit nerve-racking watching them [the lion dancers] on high poles, but I wasn’t worried for them. I have confidence in their ability,” she added.

Lion dancers in full costume leap from one high pole to another. The leaping lion is yellow and furry. There is a second lion in front which is red and blue and the two performers who make up the lion are standing on a single pole. The man who makes up the rear of the lion is holding up the person who is its head and front legs. The performance is outside and there are houses and trees behind.
Malaysian lion dance teams are renowned for their acrobatic skills performing the dance on poles that can be as high as three metres [Florence Looi/Al Jazeera]

The acrobatic lion dance is performed on high poles ranging from one to three metres in height.

Performers have to be agile and strong, and every move has to be perfectly coordinated.

A misstep or a mistimed move could result in serious injury.

The lion dance tradition may have originated in China some 1,000 years ago, but it is Malaysia that is setting the pace and Kuala Lumpur that is considered the lion dance capital of the world.

Performing on high poles is a relatively new development, invented in the 1990s by Malaysian Siow Ho Phiew, who later created a high pole sequence that became the new standard in acrobatic lion dance worldwide.

Siow, or Master Siow as he is often called in a nod to his expertise, is also a master craftsman of lion heads and a world-renowned coach.

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