Dragons in the streets

Mid-Autumn is coming! Mid-Autumn Festival or Tet Trung Thu is a happy time for Vietnamese people. Children wear masks, parade in the streets and bang on drums. Parents buy lanterns and toys for their children and prepare some tasty dishes. Special cakes are made and exchanged, and fruit is plentiful.

The masks, lanterns, toys, decorations and drums are sold on streets. Days before the 15th of the 8th lunar month the street is crowded with children and their parents. In the evening, pagodas and temples, especially those temples dedicated to goddesses, are open for worshippers to light incense and make offerings of flowers and fruit and to pray.

The festival also is the time for traditional games. The most interesting and animated activity, Lan – Su – Rong (unicorn, lion and dragon) dance, is an important aspect of many festivals including the Mid-Autumn fiesta, and is part of many animated street performances.

The boisterous arts Lan – Su – Rong dance is a re-enactment of the earth and sky duality, the yin and yang of the world. The Lord Earth, called Ong Dia in Vietnamese, is a dancer who dances around the dragon, urging it on. Ong Dia has a very round, happy smiling moon-face. He represents the wealth or fullness of the earth.

Lan – Su – Rong (unicorn, lion and dragon) are mythological animals and tradition has it that wherever a unicorn appears, people will have peace, happiness and prosperity. Originally the dance came from China, where it is called the dragon dance.

The dance may be performed by a group of youngsters. They clutch different shaped paper lanterns suspended on long poles. The lanterns take the shape of various animals like rabbits, dragons and fish or they may appear like multi-pointed stars.

The dance troupe is led along with yellow flags, by Ong Dia, and a man carrying a pole which is topped with a round ball representing a piece of jade. Chasing the tail are kids banging drums and cymbals, which are usually mounted on a cart, to provide a loud and rhythmical accompaniment to the dance. One aspect of the dance, which draws much interest from onlookers, is climbing the tree to perform a lion dance. This originates from the traditional game of climbing the tree to gather coconuts, which is also popular at festivals.

Different from the rest of the performance, the lion dance involves jumping through a fire, playing with a ball, and rolling over, all to the boisterous sound of drums. Marching in front of the dragon is the dance leader who holds a big ball and a symbolic piece representing jade. One person carries the head of the dragon while 8 to 10 others carry the body. All of them are clad like royal warriors in ancient days, with short tunics, long pants, puttees, red belts and red turbans. Following the dragon is the lion procession, which is performed by a martial artist, a masked dancer, and a dancer playing the Role of Ba Thanh – a character of Buddhist mythology, and Ong Dia.

One most important part of the dance is a ceremony in honour of village tutelary, a ceremony marked by a religious dancer, which is combined with a liquor offering rite, performed by two young men disguised as girls of easy virtue. The whole ceremony is designed to beg the tutelary for peace and prosperity for the village.

Normal dances accompanying events are very easy, and any old sod can do them. However, only dancers who have studied kung fu are able to perform the most interesting acts of the dances. To become professional Lan – Su – Rong performers, dancers are required to have practiced kung fu and must begin training from age eight or nine. They must also be healthy, brave and clever.

During performances, the unicorn, lion and dragon must manifest many sentimental states, such as sad, happy or angry in their postures as they jump, breath, roll, lay about or simply stand. Performers must also be physically fit just to carry the 15kg lion head. Some more difficult techniques, like Lion climbing to the top of bamboo, take two to three years to master.

Not only is it fun to watch, Lan – Su – Rong is believed to bring luck. On the morning of the first day of Lunar New Year, Lan – Su – Rong visits every home and shop in its area. As soon as it appears in front of a house, the place swarms with children and onlookers. The drums and cymbals sound a salute to the occupants of the house. The unicorn stoops down, bends its head several times before the entrance door, then steps back to repeat the same gesture five or six times before beginning the dance.

The homeowner or shopkeeper then presents his donations, but to make the event more difficult and exciting, he suspends his gift from the first story balcony or window from the end of a pole very similar to the bait on a fishing rod.

To claim their reward, unicorn dancers must be strong and agile people, and must be good climbers. To grab the goodies, the unicorn must be elevated upon a human pyramid to the height of the suspended gift, or sometimes they get at it through the use of a one-column ladder.

All the while, the unicorn dances to the rhythm of the throbbing drums while the excited crowd below noisily shouts encouragement. The climax comes when the prize is swallowed in the unicorn’s mouth before the group slowly moves on to the next house for another donation.

( Vietnam Net)

Courtesy: Ba Tours

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