How It's Done looks at secrets, curiosities and mysteries behind Northwest icons and traditions. They're the stars of Lunar New Year celebrations...

How It’s Done looks at secrets, curiosities and mysteries behind Northwest icons and traditions.

They’re the stars of Lunar New Year celebrations and thrill bystanders during Seafair parades: those superb athletes who undulate beneath fabric and the head of a fearsome creature, performing the Chinese lion dance, and its more familiar cousin, the dragon dance.

To find out how the fast, complex moves are executed, I talked to members of Seattle’s International Lion Dance Team. The group appears all over the state and at fundraisers, most recently to benefit victims of China’s massive May earthquake.

The dance team draws from three local martial-arts associations and is led by the schools’ teachers and directors:

Tuan Nguyen, chief instructor of Vovinam, New Holly branch, is 36 and first learned the dances as a child in a Filipino refugee camp where he lived after fleeing Vietnam.

Wai Tran, 43, is a lion-dance coach and director of Ying Yung Tong. He left Vietnam in the late ’70s, and hails from martial-art royalty; his grandfather was a kung-fu master in China.

Tony Au, 45, came from Hong Kong 30 years ago, and is seifu (master) of the International School of Martial Arts.

Q: Can you talk first about the lion dance and its history?

T.A.: Kung fu is the foundation of the dance, which has two styles, from northern and southern China. Our dance team does both but the most common is the southern style.

Q: How are they different?

T.A.: In the northern dance there’s more jumping and it’s very athletic, while the southern style has very powerful moves and precision. This is because the northern people were on horses, always leaping around, but the southern people were on boats, so they had to be grounded, balanced.

Q: And the lions have different personalities?

T.N.: Traditionally, there are three lions that represent three generals. The black lion is courageous, very wild and aggressive. Red lions are more rational and wise. And the gold lion with a rainbow body is the highest order, both wise and compassionate. Each has its own character and the dancer must know how to express that.

T.A.: The lion expresses many emotions — sadness, happiness, curiosity and caution.

Q: That’s a lot to manage while you’re running around, and the head looks pretty heavy, too.

T.A.: The lion’s head used to be made from papier-mâché and weighed 50 to 100 pounds.

T.N.: Now it’s fabric and bamboo and weighs 15 to 20 pounds. Inside are strings that make the eyelids blink and the ears wiggle. There’s also a string in the back to make the tail move.

Q: How much do these costumes cost?

T.N.: They average around $800 to $900.

Q: And you never throw them away?

W.T.: No. They’re part of the family. I have several in my garage I no longer use but I keep them. We also use the older lions for practice, to teach the younger or new students, and for outdoor performances in rainy weather.

Q: As dancers perform, how do they communicate with each other?

T.A.: Good teamwork and a lot of practice so the two dancers under the lion will move as one. They must have body unity.

Q: I would think that’s especially important in the dragon dance, with nine or more people involved. Do you ever stumble, run into each other or fall?

W.T.: It doesn’t happen often because we know each other so well, but recovering from a mistake — that’s part of this. We jump up and people don’t know.

Q: Beside the number of people involved, how does the dragon differ from the lion?

W.T.: The dragon head doesn’t have eyelids that move or anything. It’s just a person carrying the head on a pole, but you have to be very strong. The middle of the dragon is easiest. The head and the tail have to be the strongest. The movements differ between the two dances. The dragon moves faster and like a serpent but the lion is more powerful and agile, jumping with powerful and swift movements.

Q: Wei, I’m told your brothers are expert drummers for the dance — the best. Tell me about the music.

W.T.: We use a drum, a gong and cymbal. The lion’s movements follow the beat of the drum.

T.N.: Usually the lion begins asleep and as he wakes up and looks around, the drum gets faster and louder.

Q: And then there’s that amazing move in the lion dance where the person in the back jumps on to the shoulders of the person in front and stands!

T.N.: That’s called stacking. There’s no stacking in the dragon dance, just the lion’s.

T.A.: It takes balance, strength and you have to be relaxed.

Q: Hard to relax standing on top of someone’s shoulders while they’re running around and you’re holding a 20-pound head. What does it take to become a skilled dancer? Obviously, good kung-fu skills.

T.N.: You also need compassion and a commitment to community service, to help people. That’s what we teach our students.

W.T.: Our purpose is to bring all of these things to the community through the dance.

Connie McDougall, a Seattle-based freelance writer, is a regular contributor to NWWeekend.

Contact her: conniemcdougall@yahoo.com