World champion lion dancers from Malaysia practice for this weekend's competition, their first in the United States.

into town

You have to give Harlan Lee a lot of credit. The head instructor of Hawaii's Gee Yung International Martial Arts Dragon and Lion Dance Association has tried two previous times to get world-class lion dance groups to the islands to wow an audience here.

Hawaii World Invitational
Lion Dance Championships

Where: Blaisdell Arena
When: 6 p.m. preliminaries today and 7 p.m. finals tomorrow
Tickets: $35, $50 and $65
Call: 591-2211

And this is more than just what local folks are familiar with during Chinese New Year celebrations or store openings. There's an acrobatic and athleticism involved in pole dancing, that will be showcased this weekend at the Hawaii World Invitational Lion Dance Championships at the Blaisdell Arena.

Audiences for the preliminaries and finals today and tomorrow will see two-man teams from here, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Australia and the United Kingdom do precarious routines on ascending jongs (poles) that rise up to 9 feet, in sync with the usual drums, cymbals and gongs.

Japan was supposed to have a team represented in the competition, but had to bow out when the "head player" (as opposed to the "tail player") broke his leg while practicing. And as of Tuesday, when we last spoke to Lee, the Hong Kong team was able to get their visas just in the nick of time (with the help of Sen. Dan Inouye's office), although "the head player still had to go through a second interview at the consulate, and if he clears that, he'll have to pay for his own flight out." If he's prevented from leaving Hong Kong, however, Lee says they're going to have to loan a head player to the visiting team.

That may be easier said than done. In rehearsals held behind the Gerber Field House at St. Louis School Sunday afternoon, the just-arrived Malaysian team Khuan Loke (which just won an important competition at the Guayuhng Kite Festival in China, where they were the only outside team among nine teams), limbered up by casually going through their winning routines. Even so, it was clearly evident that the two-man teams -- even without the lion costume -- need to work in perfect tandem with each other in order to pull off a performance.

Both the head and tail players must move as one, with the tail player being strong enough to occasionally lift the more lithe and acrobatic head player. Now, add a costume that, while relatively light in fabric weight and with a headpiece supported by rattan and aluminum, still must move like a lion, with body and blinking eye expressions.

The head player only has vision through the mouth and the circular slits around the eyes. And, on top of this, the team has to negotiate its way up metal poles with non-padded bases, jumping between and hopping on platforms not more than a foot wide.

All of this is performed under strictly judged rules and regulations, where points are either won or deducted for such things as coordination of the lion's head and tail and footwork, the harmony between the lion and the music, the expressiveness of the lion and the degree of difficulty of the routine that includes the picking of cheng (reward) at the uppermost pole.

Total points usually run the scale of 7 to 10. Lee says no team has ever scored a perfect 10 in the history of lion dance competition, the best being 9.35.

A member of Singapore's Sar Ping Lion Dance Association team practices balancing at the Blaisdell Arena.

IT WAS because of 9/11 and the outbreak of SARS that Lee's two previous attempts at bringing such an exciting competition to Hawaii failed. So far, the third time seems to be the charm. To attract such world talent, he helped organize a first-prize winning purse of $10,000 (with $5,000 for second and $2,500 third).

This marks the first time such a championship has been brought to the United States. Due to the ever-expanding international popularity of lion dancing on poles, "groups in the states have wanted to organize their own championship, but teams from Asia usually cringe over too-long flights that would be needed, so Hawaii, with its location between Asia and the U.S., makes for a more appealing place to have a championship. It's sad that the whole U.S. contingent can't come here to watch this."

Partly because of its appeal to extreme sport enthusiasts, "the art of lion dancing is spreading worldwide -- there are teams in the U.K., France, Holland and the U.S. is up-and-coming. But, of course, the Asian teams are considered the powerhouses."

Two guests will make this weekend's competition even more special. Master H.P. Siow, considered the man of lion dancing -- coach of the current world champion Kun Seng Keng team from Malaysia and manufacturer of the Southern Lion heads that Lee says that "95 percent of all competition teams use" -- will be here, as will one of his prize students, Master Robin Chan Siew Kee, king of the Hok Shan style of drumming. He will exhibit his mastery of his own, large da gui (drum) tomorrow.

The Southern Lion, which most local and U.S. audiences are familiar with and is used in lion dance competitions, is different from the Northern Lion, which is part of the Beijing Opera tradition and focuses more on jumping and playing with props.

Lee says Master Siow's lion heads are noted for their colorful, hand-painted designs and use of New Zealand fur. One head usually goes for $800.

"Lion dancing is truly a sport and any nationality can participate in it," Lee says. "In fact, when China has the Summer Olympic Games in 2008, they hope to make it an exhibition sport."

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