The lion dance is a Chinese performing art which has been perfected over a period of over a thousand years. Many people are familiar with lion dancers because they often appear at Chinese cultural events in China and abroad, especially during lunar new year parades. This ancient tradition is said to bring luck and good fortune, as lions are viewed as lucky animals in Chinese culture.
In a lion dance, one or two performers wear a costume which is designed to look like a lion, although the resemblance is often quite superficial, as lion dancers were multicolored fur and heavy masks with details in gold and other colors. The dancers move around energetically, performing a wide variety of tricks including acrobatics like jumping up onto each other's shoulders, and the dance generally follows a rough narrative, with the lion first emerging slowly and then growing bolder and capering through the streets.
Because lion dancing requires physical skills, many lion dance troupes are associated with martial arts organizations. Lion dancing has long been affiliated with kung fu, with many of the finest lion dancers coming from kung fu schools. The martial arts skills learned by these dancers allow them to engage in the strenuous demonstrations of agility required for lion dancing.
The lion dance performance varies, depending on whether the performers are of the Northern or Southern school. In the South, the dance tends to be more ritualistic and symbolic, while Northern dancers perform lion dances for entertainment as well as good luck. In both cases, the lion dancers participate in a tradition known as choi cheng, in which they chew lettuce and other greens and then spit them out on the crowd.
Choi cheng is typically only performed during the Chinese New Year, and it is meant to bring about prosperity and good fortune. In exchange for their performance, the dancers often receive traditional red envelopes filled with money or treats, thus returning the luck to the lions.
If you are interested in seeing a lion dance performed, many troupes have regular demonstrations or allow people to sit in on rehearsals. You can also attend a lunar new year parade if one is held in your area. Many cities around the world hold lavish Chinese New Year parades which feature numerous lion dancing troupes along with displays of other traditional Chinese arts.