17-year-old lion dancer in B.C. says Lunar New Year tradition keeps her connected to family, culture

Emily Yen, 17, performs as the lion's head for lion dance routines. She says lion dancing is her way of connecting with her culture and older generations.  (Mike Zimmer/CBC - image credit)
Emily Yen, 17, performs as the lion's head for lion dance routines. She says lion dancing is her way of connecting with her culture and older generations. (Mike Zimmer/CBC - image credit)

When 17-year-old Emily Yen puts on the head of a lion dance costume, she is concentrating on putting on the best performance, knowing her family — including her grandparents — could be watching.

She says she sees lion dance as a vehicle to connect with her culture and older generations in B.C.'s Chinese community.

"It did let me reconnect with my culture as I got to learn about traditions that I otherwise have not been exposed to," said Yen.

She's one of many across the province preparing for the performance for Lunar New Year weekend.

Mike Zimmer/CBC
Mike Zimmer/CBC

Born in Canada, Yen took up lion dancing as a young child, which let her immerse in traditional Chinese culture — and helped her connect with her grandparents.

"They don't have the same interests as me, but having them be able to see me perform and such and doing things that relate to them ... It touches their hearts, kind of allows for common ground for us to speak to each other."

Synergy between dancers

A typical lion dance performance merges artistry with athleticism and precision, requiring co-ordination between dancers.

Accompanied by traditional instruments, such as drums and cymbals, dancers mimic the lion's movements by performing lifts and tricks, often with props.

Yen says performing as the head of the lion involves plenty of jumping and being lifted by her partner performing as the tail.

"A lot of it is ... being able to know what the other person does, get used to their body habits, how they jump, and how they move," said Yen.

She says she's learned a lot about the mythical lion from her coach, Eugenia Chau, who usually performs as the tail.

The pair typically perform a routine demonstrating how a lion jumps across a bridge to find food.

A lion's quest

Chau says every routine tells a story, usually involving a lion's quest.

"The lion cannot talk, so it has to use expressions to tell the story. Normally it will be a lion going through an obstacle course," said Chau, who founded and coaches the Vancouver Lion Dance Association.

Mike Zimmer/CBC
Mike Zimmer/CBC

According to Chau, the people signing up for her classes — who were born in Canada or immigrated from Asia — often do so with the intent of keeping their culture alive and sharing it with others. It's why she wants to continue coaching, she says.

"We like to let especially little kids know the meaning behind the lion — what we use it for, how it's performed, and what is required so [they] have a sense of belonging and also to learn the culture," said Chau.

Yen says her responsibilities are piling up as she grows older, with school and other extra curricular activities such as archery and Hapkido.

However, her love for her heritage and the tradition keeps her connected with the lion dancing community.

"What keeps me going is the excitement of being at performances and being able to show off all the things I've been working towards," said Yen.

"In a way it bridges me and my culture, including my grandparents and other relatives. It's something we can talk about — that common ground."