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The City Journals

Students perform Chinese New Year Lion Dance for first time

Feb 27, 2017 10:36AM ● By Bryan Scott

Students perform the traditional Lion Dance. (Jet Burnham/City Journals)

By Jet Burnham | [email protected]
To celebrate Chinese New Year, Calvin S. Smith Elementary hosted a colorful festival on Jan. 26.
Brandy Seaman, PTA board member in charge of the evening, said the whole community was invited, not just families involved in the school’s Chinese Immersion Program.
Immersion students prepared for the event by making decorations and learning about the holiday’s customs. Rachel Kimball, a member of the PTA committee for the event, said her three kids learned a variety of cultural dances in their immersion classes.
On the night of the festival, dance groups were invited to perform traditional dances. But for the first time in the five years Calvin S. Smith Elementary has hosted a Chinese New Year celebration, the school’s own students performed the Lion Dance.
The Lion Dance is performed at Chinese New Year’s celebrations for good luck. In the performance, three lions dance to the beat of percussion instruments. Each lion is made of a 7-foot-long costume with one student in the head piece and one in the tail. Another performer portrays Buddha with a mask and interacts with the lions. Then the lions weave their way through the audience with Buddha wordlessly guiding them to children and parents who have envelopes of money to “feed” into the lions’ mouths. 
Fifth-grade teacher Michael Marcrum taught the dance and music to a group of 16 fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders.
Fourth-graders Jocelyn and Jackelyn Abad preferred working in the head of the lion.
“Being the tail is a pain in the back,” said Jackelyn. Students under the tail end had to be crouched over to make the back end lower than the head.
The students spent two months practicing the movements and learning about the dance. Jocelyn said they practiced moving and thinking like a cat, so once inside the costume, their movement would show the lion’s character. During the dance, none of the performers’ faces can be seen and no one speaks. At times in the dance, the lions are angry, and during other parts they move playfully.
Sixth-grader Jaci Huo explained how she learned to control the moving features on the lion head of the costume.
“There was a string attached to the eyes and ears,” she said. “When you tug the string, [the lion] blinks and moves its ears.” These movements made the lions more expressive when interacting with Buddha and with the audience.
“We always took into account the traditions involved in the lion dance and took it very seriously, as we did not want to offend anyone deeply familiar with the culture,” said Marcrum, who consulted Damian Snyder, his Kung Fu Sifu (leader) on aspects of the dance. “We did simplify some of the routines to help make it more friendly to elementary students.”
The initial funding for the supplies came through the Confucius Grant given to the school by the Confucius Institute of China through the University of Utah, said Principal Cindy Dunn.
“The school purchased the drum, cymbals, gong, three lions of differing sizes, and the Buddha outfit with the mask and fan,” Marcrum said. “Together it costs thousands of dollars. Luckily, the Confucius Grant has allowed us to make these purchases, and we can continue to use the equipment for many years.”
Near the end of the performance, the Buddha character feeds lettuce to the lion. The lion then spits it out, and anyone who catches a piece will have good luck. Marcrum said either cabbage or lettuce can be used. The students tried several varieties before determining romaine lettuce worked best.
“Romaine is easier to tear,” said Maryn Seaman, a sixth-grader who had to quickly tear the lettuce and throw it through the lion’s mouth during the performance.
Marcrum hopes to train students in using a Chinese parade dragon next year.
“I am very proud of the students who put so much work into learning the dance and performed at their best,” Marcrum said. “I feel that it was their performance, not mine, and they deserve all of the credit.”