A small crowd gathers at the gate outside Duon Hua Chinese high school, across from Phsar Kandal, eager to catch a glimpse of the lions inside.
The lions—one red, one blue, one green and one white—leap and dance around each other to the continuous clash of cymbals and thudding beat of a drum. All the while, they shake their heads, flap their ears, blink their eyes and wag their tails.
The red lion shows signs of tiring. It pulls off its head and the hind legs separate.
The hind legs, in the form of Zhou Bi Shi, take to the sidelines. Drenched with sweat, the 23-year-old student strains to catch his breath. His face matches the redness of his fur-lined pants.
Zhou says he has been practicing the traditional Chinese lion dance for nearly seven years.
Still, after about 15 minutes of performing the continuous acrobatic movements, he says, his legs begin to get sore.
“Being the tail is harder,” he says. He explains that he must support his partner, the lion’s head, lifting him onto his shoulders and bracing him when he springs forward. “If the head wants to jump and the tail is tired, it cannot jump,” he says.
The hind legs, he says, are also responsible for wagging the lion’s tail, which is controlled by a short bamboo rod inside the cloth costume. The head, wearing a 4-kg mask, uses concealed wires to control the blinking eyelids and flapping ears.
In anticipation of the Chinese New Year, which starts Thursday, the nearly 80 lion dance students at Duon Hua high school have been practicing at least an hour and a half each day since September, says Chun Xian Chung, a teacher at the school.
They are preparing not for public performances but for private shows to raise money for the school, he says. The students receive many requests during this time of year, especially from families and businesses who want the lion dancers to bring them luck for the new year. For a single performance, they can raise about $1,000, Chun says.
Many of the students have never danced before this season started, but he says it doesn’t take them long to learn. The school has recruited a teacher from Malaysia specifically for the task of training them.
“It’s not hard,” Chun says. “Three months is enough.”
Student Wang Ming, who has been practicing the dance for about four years, agrees. “It’s not difficult once you know how,” the 18-year-old says.
Outside in the school’s courtyard, one lion head has climbed up a 7-meter wooden pole. He flips around and cinches back down, curling and winding around the pole as he descends upside-down.
The lion up there is one of the new dancers, Zhou says. If he were more experienced, he’d be able to do more flips. “Yes, it’s dangerous,” Zhou admits. “Foreigners wouldn’t dare to do this without wires to support them.”
Beside the pole-dancing lion, another lion makes its way across a series of upright beams of various heights. It hops between beams, kicking its furry, white feet and shaking its gold-lined mane in time with the cymbals.
This lion is heading to the other end to pick a big, plastic flower attached to the farthest beam, Zhou explains. Once he gets there and picks it, the dance is over, he says.
Sometimes the new dancers are scared to climb up on the 2-meter high beams, Zhou says. But, he says: “When you know how, you know how.”
Zhou and Wang say they train to dance to preserve this part of their Chinese heritage. Like many of the school’s students, they were born here, their ancestors having arrived in Cambodia a generation ago.
“It’s tradition,” Zhou says.
Wang adds: “For New Year’s and in times of happiness, it’s what we do.”