Gender bias in lion dance and the weight of representation for queer lion dancers

Dora Ng shares their story about lion dancing in a community that’s traditionally male-dominated and the weight of representation.

Overcoming gender bias in lion dancing

The first time I saw a lion dance performance was at Vancouver Chinatown’s Spring Festival Parade as a young child. In particular, I remember the sight of this lion head dancer, dressed in white, leaping above the head of the tail dancer. He was so graceful he looked like he was floating through the air.

I grew up living with my grandparents. My grandmother loved watching TV adaptations of Chinese martial arts novels, and so did I. My grandfather would always complain that we watch too much TV. Grandma and I would frame it as spending time with each other, and TV was begrudgingly allowed as long as we were watching together. 

In Chinese martial arts novels, martial artists are always scaling walls and hopping from rooftop to rooftop. Sometimes they could even fly. This mythical ability was known as 輕功,or the “Art of Lightness,” and there was nothing more that I wanted to learn as a child. When I saw the lion dancer, I didn’t understand yet that he was being lifted by the tail dancer. I thought I was looking at 輕功 in real life and decided that I absolutely must learn lion dance.

Dora Ng sits down as she gets ready to lion dance
Photo credit: Geoff Wing

Gender bias in lion dancing

The opportunity didn’t come for me until 20 years later. Even though I had been saying that I wanted to learn martial arts since I was five, I wasn’t allowed to because it was a “boy’s activity”. I was a weak and sickly child, and when I was 13 years old, my mom decided that martial arts might help improve my health, and I was finally allowed kung fu classes. 

I still wanted to learn lion dance, but nobody was willing to teach me. Sifu after sifu told me that I wouldn’t be strong enough to wield the lion head, but I could perhaps play cymbals and gong. 

Things didn’t change until I met my lion dance partner Vicky at a volunteer event. We found out that we had learned kung fu from the same teacher, and we both shared the same desire and struggle to learn lion dance. At the event, we met a sifu who told us that our martial arts foundation was solid but our lion dance sucked. We explained that we never learned it properly because nobody ever taught us. He offered to teach us the basics.

“I’ll do it if you do,” we said to each other, and our lion dance journey began.

We learned the basics of lion dance from this sifu. After we learned everything we could from him, we turned to YouTube. We tried the different tricks and routines that we saw and started creating our own. We now teach young students, many of whom are girls and nonbinary people.

Lion dance in the queer community

Not only did Vicky and I share a love of kung fu and lion dance, we also shared similar community values. With lion dance, we thought about how we can not only bring joy to the community but also advance social justice through the art. Sometimes we are able to do this by bringing the performance into unexpected places, such as the Commodore Ballroom with drag artists Maiden China and Shay Dior. 

Our favourite and perhaps our best performance was opening the Pride in Chinatown event with both a dance and a traditional eye dotting ceremony, with a queer twist. Through the blessing of the lion, we declared that we are claiming space, as queers of colour in both the queer community and in Chinatown. 

See also: How Canadian drag artist Kara Juku found their community on stage

Dora Ng stands for the ceremony for Pride in Vancouver's Chinatown before the lion dance
Photo credit: Geoff Wing

The weight of representation

After every performance, someone will always ask me how much Fluffy, my lion costume, weighed. 

Women and nonbinary people who ask this often want to hear a high number so they can be impressed and inspired. 

Some men will ask and then tell me about how much heavier the lion heads were “back in the day,” unlike now when the lions are so much lighter and supposedly “anyone” can wield them. 

Most people are just innocently curious. 

I had no idea how much my lion actually weighed. Some days it feels almost weightless, and on other days it feels heavy, and just wiggling it leaves me short of breath. 

On all days when I hold a lion head I also carry the additional weight of the patriarchy. From the moment someone who is not a boy picks up a lion, they are closely scrutinized. If a boy finds the lion head heavy, he is expected to be able to develop the strength he needs eventually. If a girl shows any sign of struggling, she is immediately told that “see, you (and all girls) are not strong enough after all.” 

The lion stands tall during the lion dance for Pride in Vancouver's Chinatown
Photo credit: Geoff Wing

Uplifting others through lion dance

I’ve faced this many times over the years. The moment I pick up a lion head someone will step in and tell me that I will never be able to wield it. I was not allowed to struggle and I was not given room to fail or experiment. One mistake or a bead of sweat and the lion was taken from me. This experience was on loop until I started dancing with Vicky. When we started performing together and started getting decent, people would compliment us by telling us that we were “almost as good as men” or “like men.” 

A couple of months ago I watched a lion dance competition at CanAm, a multi-discipline martial arts competition. There was only one girl lion dancer. She was very young and paired with a much older and experienced dancer. Her stage was set up with props that suggested that her lion will attempt multiple jumps and stunts. 

The moment she lifted the lion head though, I knew that she was not very experienced. I worried about the tricks she was going to perform but hoped for the best. Not surprisingly, she was not able to land some of the jumps and stunts, and the performance was a bit difficult to watch. She looked so bummed in the end, and I knew that part of the disappointment was that as the only girl lion dancer in the competition, she had not represented as well as she had hoped she would. 

See also: Dear Kiki: How do I talk to my child about gender and sex?

The lion crouches low during the lion dance for Pride in Vancouver's Chinatown
Photo credit: Geoff Wing

I wanted so much to say to her that it was fine, this was part of a process and she is allowed to fail and that I know she will grow, and that I see her and I too understand what it feels like to carry the weight of representation as minorities in the sport. Our performance will shape people’s opinions of the abilities and potential of all performers who are not men. 

The more diverse lion dancers are, the less of this extra weight we will individually carry. With every woman and nonbinary lion dancer I see, I feel some of the weight lift. 

But I do not want to give this long answer after every performance so last night I finally weighed the lion. 

Fluffy is ten pounds. 

*This article was originally published in 2019 and was updated in 2022 with addition links and descriptors.

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