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Daniel Steen: The Jow Ga lion dancer

Daniel Steen Jow Ga Kuen Lion Dance

Senior Kung Fu Instructor & Lion Dance Performer

"I love being part of this lion dance troupe. You could be doing a small performance but a crowd is drawn in and people just light up when they see the lions."

It’s close to noon when the first four members of the Jow Ga Kuen Martial Arts Association stride into the North Melbourne Recreation Centre's multipurpose hall.

Dressed in sky blue T-shirts tucked into black kung fu pants, they're carrying two red and green lion heads and wheeling a large drum, which they carefully set to one side of the hall. Then they get out onto the floor to alternate between dribbling a basketball and doing warm up stretches.

As the rest of their team trickles in, one observation stands out. Jow Ga’s appeal reaches beyond the Chinese community in Melbourne. Among the non-Chinese faces in the room is Daniel Steen, a senior kung fu instructor and a lion dance performer.

“Jow Ga has such a multicultural community and it’s a really solid one,” Daniel enthuses. “That’s what I love about it. Anyone from any background is welcome here.”

Three more lion heads, a bag of cymbals and a gong have now arrived. Outside the hall, two high poles have been set up side by side and small red wooden tables have been stacked to form a multi-level structure.

The association's director, Frank Lam, pokes his head in the hall to summon everyone outside. The Jow Ga lion dance troupe’s last practice before Chinese New Year is now in session.

You must be looking forward to performing for Chinese New Year.

Yea, it’s pretty great! I love being part of this lion dance troupe. You could be doing a small performance but a crowd is drawn in and people just light up when they see the lions.

They also hand you all sorts of things as offerings during Chinese New Year. Sometimes they’ll give you a beer so you’ll have a sip and spurt it out. That’s pretty funny. I love it. It’s a lot more interesting than my own background!

What does that background look like and how did it lead you here?

So I grew up in a small town called Castlemaine in central Victoria. I would hire Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan movies from the video store and binge watch them. That’s what got me into kung fu.

A small kung fu school started up there when I was 14. It seemed quite exotic in a small town to be learning kung fu so I signed up. I trained for five years then moved to Melbourne to study and really missed kung fu but couldn’t find the right school.

Three years ago I read about Jow Ga starting up again in Melbourne so I decided to give it a try and fell in love with it. It’s more traditional but also fluid and has a strong community behind it.

Everyone was starting from scratch and trying to grow the school at that point which was great. But I never thought I would be part of lion dance parades or these big Chinese New Year events!

Jow Ga is a traditional Shaolin style. It differs from other kung fu styles in that there is equal emphasis on developing hand and upper body techniques as on lower body and kicking techniques. Melbourne's Jow Ga Kuen Martial Arts Association first opened in 1987 and is the city's oldest school.

How did you then end up in this lion dance troupe?

The Jow Ga style of kung fu is rare in that it has a Chinese lion dance component to it which is a big part of its cultural heritage. I remember Frank bringing in five lions for a demo performance one day and everyone thought, oh wow this is amazing! But getting into lion dance took baby steps. I started at the bum end. Everyone starts there!

How is this style of kung fu reflected in its lion dance component?

The lion dance shares the same stances and movements as Jow Ga kung fu. There’s the strong horse stance, cat stance, forward stance. And because our kung fu foundation has helped build our core strength, it’s more about learning the routines and the acrobatics.

When you’re in the tail or bum, you’re following along. Whereas the lion’s head has an element of puppeteering, dance and choreography. That’s much more challenging because you have to create the illusion that the animal is alive through subtle mannerisms like little cat-like leg flicks or turning your head like a cat. I’ve just started learning to do that.

People don’t really notice these little details but that’s what sells it and makes it seem like an actual creature rather than two dorky guys walking up and down.

Aside from learning the routine, what else would a beginner find challenging in lion dancing?

Keeping in time with the music. It can be difficult for someone who’s rhythmically and musically challenged! It’s taken me a while but when you constantly hear the music and learn to play the instruments it gets better.

You learn to play the instruments as well?

Yea, because you need to know what movement is coming next. There are different patterns that form the movements so there’s a symbiotic performance between the dancers and the music. I’m learning the cymbals and gong at the moment. I’ll probably start playing the drums soon.

And what’s it like being underneath the costume?

Hot! And there's poor visibility. It’s like driving a car with all these big blind spots and having to open the lion’s mouth for a peek around without ruining the illusion. And your arms get tired from holding the head.

It’s made from bamboo and paper mache but holding it out for even 10 minutes can be exhausting, so we’ve got a good system where we can tag each other in, especially during the walks.

What does that mean - to tag each other in?

So if I’m a bit exhausted I can get a friend to jump in and we’ll switch. We do it nice and sneaky at the right time so no one notices!

Do you speak Chinese?

No, I don’t. It gets funny sometimes because Frank’s granddad, the sifu of the school, only speaks Chinese and is often yelling at my feet so I'm always having to figure out what he’s trying to say!

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