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Famous dragon dancers pride of Pudong

By Qu Zhi (Shanghai Daily)

09:44, June 04, 2013

(Photo/Shanghai Daily)

The Chinese dragon is the greatest symbol of power and good fortune and no traditional festival is complete without an undulating dragon dance, especially around the time of the Dragon Boat festival which falls next Wednesday.

Sanlin Town in the Pudong New Area is famous for its dragon dancers, considered by many to be the best in China. They also tour internationally.

Meters and meters of red decorative fabric are carried on bamboo poles by the dragon dance team that rehearses for long hours to coordinate and synchronize their movements so the dragon appears to writhe and move in waves.

Unlike evil Western dragons, the Chinese dragon is benevolent, even playful, bringing good fortune and rain, and controlling the wind and waters. The dragon has been revered for thousands of years and Chinese people are also known as the descendants of the dragon.

During the Chinese Lunar New Year and other festivals, Chinese around the world celebrate with dragon and lion dances.

The dragon dance probably originated in the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), as part of a ritual and prayer for rain.

In Pudong's Sanlin Town, the dragon dance is an indispensable part of culture.

The Sanlin dragon dance dates back to the Song (960-1279) and Yuan (1271-1368) dynasties and become popular in the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties.

"People performed dragon dances all the time, especially during religious activities," says Lu Dajie, founder of the Sanlin Dragon and Lion Dance Troupe.

Lu, 64, was born and raised in Sanlin Town and remembers that as a child he chased after the dragon dancers in the lanes and streets of the old town. He grew up to be a professional dancer and worked as a choreographer for a while. His grandfather was a businessman who sponsored performances and his neighbor was part of a dragon dance team.

"I was hooked at the very first by the masculine quality of this performance," he says.

In 1994 he established the Sanlin Dragon and Lion Dance Team, comprised entirely of farmers with an average age of 21. There are currently over 70 members, with 12 being professional performers.

Later he recruited apprentices from every district in the city, but most dragon dancers are still from Sanlin. Today they are no longer farmers, they are clerks, security guards, college students, retired soldiers and professionals.

Dancers train regularly, at least every two weeks for two hours. They also take part in competitions and commercial performances, but they don't get paid.

Training is demanding and dancers need strength and stamina. The dragons range from 1-2 meters in length to more than 100 meters long; the ones used in professional competitions usually measure 18 meters long. In training sessions, each man must run 1,500 meters in six minutes and practice various movements. The entire group's movement must be coordinated.

"In choosing dancers, I value integrity because only honest people can persevere in this arduous training and cultural legacy," Lu tells Shanghai Daily. "Of course, first and foremost, they must love the dragon from the bottom of their heart."

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