Kyle Nip, 14, spent a recent Friday night sweating and working out. He ran laps, held together several martial arts moves, practiced dance steps and performed multiple sit-ups. It was all to train for the next round of Lunar New Year performances.
Nip is a part of a group of volunteer lion dancers called The Immortals in Monterey Park. Lion dancers are key to welcoming the Lunar New Year, because they chase away evil spirits and bring good luck.
“It’s like an art. It’s something really interesting and fun to do,” Nip said. “You meet friends and you get pretty buff.”
Performing the dance correctly isn’t easy. Colorful Chinese lion costumes, in hues such as red, and gold, come in two parts: the head and the body. Performers work in teams of two, with one person controlling the head, with their feet representing the front legs. The other person is hunched over and controls the dragon’s tail, with their feet representing the back legs. Both feet of the team members have to dance in unison, as if they were one lion.
It is an athletic feat, that at times can require performers to roll over in the lion costume and sit atop a team member.
“You can’t just put it over your head and take it for granted. That thing has life and you have to put life into it,” said Jeff Chan, the group’s founder.
Lion dancing was brought to China centuries ago, when explorers wanted to show people back at home what lions looked like by making them into puppets, Chan said. The concept of enacting the lion later entered martial arts schools, he said.
Today, it’s a dance performed at weddings, birthdays, Lunar New Year events and even business openings.
Over the years, The Immortals have performed in movies like The Replacement Killers and was also in last year's Honda Super Bowl Commercial.
But the group still maintains its modest roots and the people in it hold a variety of occupations from doctors to lawyers to teachers. It’s free to join, but The Immortals charges event organizers who want them to perform. A wedding performance could cost $600.
Lunar New Year is a busy time. This month, Chan said the group will perform every other day and will take part in the annual Golden Dragon Parade in LA’s Chinatown.
Nip, 14, said at first, he didn’t want to be a lion dancer, but joined The Immortals because of his mom. He didn’t understand what it was all about.
“It involved exercising and working out and it was too tiring,” Nip said.
But he stuck with it because he wanted to learn more about his Chinese culture. Eight years later, he’s still lion dancing.
“You get to be a part of it. You’re not just sitting down writing notes on your culture. You are taking part in it actively,” Nip said. “You are the lion in the lion dance. You can’t just say, ‘Oh, this is lion dance in my report.’”