Orange County’s lion dancers prepare for Lunar New Year – Orange County Register

Anthony Le was fearful of the lions. Those gigantic heads, vibrant red with protruding eyes, bobbing and weaving across the room, coming closer and closer, the thudding of the aggressive drums louder and louder.

But that was when he was a child. He’s one of them now, a lion.

Le, 24, manages Fountain Valley’s Ane Thanh Lion Dance team, one of several Orange County troops ready up for a busy Lunar New Year season.

There are multiple legends of how the lion dance originated. Still, the message is similar: It’s a traditional performance meant to bring luck in a new year in Chinese, Vietnamese and other Asian cultures. While lion dances are often seen around Lunar New Year and Tết parades and celebrations, they are also performed at other important events that would need luck, such as weddings or business openings.

Le and his team of about 25 members practice every Sunday — but the rehearsals get more intense leading up to Lunar New Year, he said.

“We’re perfecting our moves, reenacting something that’s alive and a being itself, having its own character and actually moving like a lion,” he said.

“We don’t want to be people in a costume moving around, doing jumps here and there,” he said. “It’s truly having this character that’s alive. A lot of people in the performance industry is trying to be that person; so we be the lion.”

The lion dance, said Austin Quach, is a way for Asian American dancers to connect with their history and family.

“Being Asian American diaspora and growing up in the U.S., it’s really easy to lose track of that culture, lose track of those roots, where you come from and your family story,” Quach, 27, said. “Participating in lion dance is our way of getting back in touch with our roots and rediscovering our history and everything it has to offer.”

Quach grew up in Northern California where he first studied Chinese martial arts. But his passion evolved into lion and dragon dancing. He devoured VCR tapes and DVDs of the dances. And when he moved to Orange County, he started his own group: Qing Wei Lion & Dragon Dance Cultural Troupe.

Based in Santa Ana, the troupe takes a more hybrid approach, says Quach, its “Sifu,” or executive director. The dance very much draws on a martial arts background, moving lions with power and aggression, but also mimicking small, catlike expressions to portray various emotions.

That “zhou jia” style, incorporating a type of southern Chinese martial art, “has a weight in the way we perform the lion dance,” Quach said. “You’ll notice that through the posture and movements … and the way we bring our lions to life.”

Le’s Ane Thanh Lion Dance group is named for the only non-clergy woman among the 117 Vietnamese martyrs, canonized by Pope John Paul II because they were killed for their faith in the 19th century.

His group practices what Le described as a modern approach to the Southern style of dance, a more popular version where lions are depicted in an array of colors. They use both “fut san” (more aggressive with sharp horns and curved mouths) and “hok san” (more modern and rounded with a flat mouth and friendlier appearance) lions in their performances.

A Northern style of lion dance, he said, more resembles an actual lion, made in gold with yellow and red fur.