At this year’s Shake the Lake festival June 29, a centuries old dance will be performed, filled with Chinese imagery and symbolism.
The United States Lion & Dragon Dance Federation will hold its national championships all weekend long at Monona Terrace with different divisions competing, and a portion to be presented prior the Madison fireworks.
Caleb Fliearman of Waunakee is part of a Lion Dance team. He became involved during his freshman year in high school when he began to study at Zhong Yi Kung Fu Academy in Madison, which offers traditional martial arts instruction as well as Lion Dance.
“They’re kind of intertwined,” said Fliearman, who will be a junior at Waunakee High School this fall.
The dance grew out of martial arts in the Gaun and Zhou provinces in China, and only martial artists could perform it.
“If a martial arts school had a lot of lion dancers in it, it would be considered a successful and prosperous school,” Fliearman said.
The dance entails a great deal of movement, energy and acrobatics. The dancers stack up to move the lion’s head or tail. The dances also tell a story, Fliearman added.
Lion and Dragon dances are actually two separate disciplines.
“The dragon is much larger,” Fliearman said, noting about 14 people make up the team.
The lion requires the symbol and drum players, and teammates for the head and tail.
The dances are often performed for Chinese New Year and other auspicious and fortunate events, such as weddings and restaurant openings where luck is needed.
“Lions dances are usually called for these things,” he said.
Fliearman serves as the symbol captain, overseeing the four to five people who perform the musical routine. He’s been the head and tail a few times, too.
“For competition, I’m mainly on the musical side,” he said.
For the music, two symbol players, a gong player and drummer perform. Every move in the dance has some significance. The lion will eat lettuce then spit it out to audience, spreading good luck for the next 48 hours, Fliearman said.
To prepare, Fliearman and his teammates practice about three to four times a week, starting with stretching, jogging and then running through their routines.
“We video each other to see what we’re doing wrong,” Fliearman said.
His experience has taught him accountability and responsibility. As captain, he ensures that his teammates are performing their best, he said.
But it’s also expanded his horizons.
“It’s been a lot of fun. I’ve been more culturally attuned,” Fliearman said.
He’s now competed in Boston, and last November, in Macau, China, at the MGM Cotai Lion Dance Championship, where his team took third place in their division.
“That’s definitely something I could cross off the bucket list,” he said.
Fliearman is studying Mandarin Chinese at Waunakee High School, but that didn’t help him much during his visit in Macau, where Cantonese is spoken.
“I knew about three words – swear words, which I couldn’t say,” Fliearman said.
Fliearman plans to continue studying and competing, and hopes to be invited back to Macau.
As for Shake the Lake, Fliearman said the organizers seemed excited to include the National Lion & Dragon Dance Championships in the lineup.
“It’s very cool that we as a federation have a chance to present this art and spread it across the United States,” Fliearman said.