Female dragon dancer scale-up ambitions in Vietnam

Lion and dragon dancing has been normally seen as a male pursuit in Vietnam, but young female performers are challenging that assumption.
February 05, 2021 | 16:57
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After her day shift as a pharmacist at her local health clinic in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, Le Yen Quyen dances on perilously high metal poles at the head of a lion dance troupe, practicing her moves ahead of Lunar New Year festivities.

Quyen, 27, was one of the first women to join the Tu Anh Duong lion and dragon dance troupe, where performers mimic the movements of the creatures to bring good luck and dispel evil spirits.

Evening after evening in the southern city of Can Tho, she perfects the stunts that she will show off during Tet, the Vietnamese New Year holiday, which begins next week.

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Dancers take part in a practice session at the Tu Anh Duong lion and dragon dance school in Can Tho, Vietnam, on Jan. 20. Photo: AFP

Her baby daughter, who accompanies her to every session, looks on from the sidelines.

“To get good at lion dancing, you must be patient ... take risks,” said Quyen, whose husband is also a dancer in the troupe. “It was very difficult at the beginning. I injured my hands and feet.”

Central to the routine are 21 metal plinths — some standing at more than 2m — that dancers must jump between to symbolize the challenging stages in life that must be overcome.

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Le Yen Quyen, left, practices a dragon dance routine along with other troupe members at the Tu Anh Duong lion and dragon dance school in Can Tho, Vietnam, on Jan. 20. Photo: AFP

Towering over them all is a 7m pole — the ultimate spot to showcase the complex twists and turns of the lion dance.

As a taekwondo black belt, Quyen had the agility and power to excel at the dance, which has been performed for centuries — largely by men — in Vietnam and other parts of Asia.

However, to join, she had to overcome resistance from the local community, who said that it was too challenging for a woman.

It was her talent that eventually convinced them, said Quyen, who has won dozens of gold medals at local and national lion and dragon dance competitions.

“I am proud to be the person who has inspired other girls,” she said, explaining that 20 woman have become members of the troupe.

One of those is Luu Thi Kim Thuong, 17, who signed up with four of her friends, despite a fear of heights.

“When I trained at the beginning, I was scared ... and I couldn’t climb to the very top, but gradually, I climbed higher and higher day by day,” Thuong said. “It took me three months to climb the high poles.”

Training for two to three hours after school each day, she said that she has developed great chemistry with the other dancers.

This is crucial for such a demanding activity, she added.

“We have to communicate, to understand each other,” Thuong said. “If something is wrong, one of us has to say it out loud, so we can fix it together.”

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