The sound made by drummers around the Tet time always makes people excited as it reminds them of the colorful and very impressive dragon and lion dances in the sun beam.
The Lan (an imaginatively legendary animal in the Vietnam culture which is the combination of all the pieces taken from animals), Dragon and Lion dance is an art form originated from China, brought about with the old Chinese people who had to flee away from their country to settle down in a new land such as Vietnam. This dance can often be seen in festivals and special occasions such as the Tet Nguyen Tieu (the 15th day of the first lunar month), Mid Autumn Festival and Tet Nguyen Dan (beginning on the first day of the first lunar month). According to the Asian point of view, these three animals resemble the prosperity, happiness and flowing for the time being.
This dance shows both the folklore art and the local artistic specialties. Depending on the space scale and each festival identities, the dance takes place in different forms. Sometime, the dancers perform separately those three dances, sometimes they combine them to make it perfect triple dances, attracting people’s attention by their appearance, movement, braveness and the spiritual meaning that each dancing troupe conveys.
There are two types of “Lan”, with and without a horn. The “Lan” without the horn resembles the tiger. It is the symbol of the first lunar month. The head of this “Lan” is used for dances, often attached with a piece of red cloth written a big “King” script in bold letter. The body of the “Lan” is decorated with black circles. The “Lan” with a horn has only one on its head, often called the “unusual Lan”. It has a big round head, the body and head colors are the same. It is also the most popularly used Lan in dancing. All the work focuses on making the head of the Lan, the body is simple the hemmed and embroidered cloth. On the other hand, to make a lion for the dance, the artist have to create the whole animal. There is a special kind of Lion, which half resembles the Lan, half the dragon, but rarely seen in performances.
The dragon is categorized into three kinds: the silk ones are made with smooth and soft cloth, attached to strong, hard sticks for performance; the round ones are made by tough paper with long round belly; the rigid ones are used in festival worshipping procedures. It requires 2 persons for a Lan or Lion dance, but a lot more people have to take part in the hard training in order to get the smooth movements of the lion back and forward. There are at least 6 people taking part in the dances; sometimes 20 or up to 30 persons control the dragon in the performances.
Despite all the renovation, the Lion and the Dragon cannot be as varied as the Lan with different colors such as : white, yellow, red, green and black. The most popular Lan heads are in white, red and black. The three heads used in dancing resembling the story of “The brotherhood tie-up at the blossom garden” are the yellow face and white beard, (Luu Bi, one of the three famous brothers in the story), the red face and black beard (Quan Van Truong, ditto) and black face and beard one (Truong Phi, ditto).
If the show consists of one Lan performance, it is called “the solo Lan Occupying the Stage”, often shows off the rhythmic movements, the braveness, the skillfulness of such a general, a hero in a battle field. If two Lan take part in a dance, it is called the Double Happiness Dance, reflecting the happiness, the harmony of such a couple like husband and wife, the sky and the land and the unification of the positive and negative in the Asian spiritual life. Three Lan dancing in a performance must be in three different colors: Yellow, Red and Black, often reminds people of the odd-number thinking as in “three Stars”, and also show people’s wishes for: Happiness, Good Fortune and Longevity. This kind of dances, as mentioned before, is the reflection of the three heroic brothers Luu Bi, Quan Vu and Truong Phi, who were very brave, separated them all. The performance of these three Lan always draw people’s interest for the meaningful, attractive and outstanding dances thanks to the performers’ well training.
For a performance with four Lan, often named “Four Precious Creatures bring about the Prosperity”, consist of a white, a yellow, a red and often o black (or green” “lan”, which symbolizes the four seasons, four directions in the space, four different phenomena of the universe; also, it reflects the human wishes for the abundance, good health, longevity and happiness.
The dancing troupe will choose the suitable dances to perform according to the space available and the meaning of the event. The best dancer will be the only who can take responsibility of controlling the head of the Lan, for the drastic competition and the excitement that the movements must achieve at different height.
It is possible to combine the “Lan” and the Lion dances, the “Lan” and the Dragon performances. If the dance “the Lion plays with the red ball” is considered a high standard performance, the Lan meets the Dragon one is at another standard, showing the spatiality, the smooth, strong combination, which conveys the meaningful happiness, solidarity and connection. It is hard for anyone to get fed up with such a dance, which results in the pride aroused and the alive love for life.
It can help mentioning the comical monk in any dances, which is the symbol of the Di Lac (the last Buddha appearing on earth according to the Buddhism theory), a happy Buddha. The legend has it that Buddha Di Lac has turned himself into another person with the power to control a sea monster attacking people on earth. He turned himself to a comical monk, and then took some holy tree from the mountains to feed the monster in order to tame it, turning it from a flesh-eating monster into a vegetable and fruit eating animal.
From that time forwards, every year, when the Tet comes, the comical monk takes the animal to welcome people and wish them all the best for the new year; this conveys the meaning of the life that the bad can become the good if people have goodwill. The trip of the comical monk and his creature is said to bring the goodness to the family, that’s the reason why they are welcome everywhere with the green vegetable and red pieces of paper hung up. Later on, as a bonus, people often hang up some lucky money inside that red piece of paper along with the green. The creature - “Lan” – has to climb up in order to catch this “food”. It is evident that the comical monk has never climbed up together with the Lan but guided him in dances with his big paper fan, sometimes put him into sleep or waken him up. The scene in which the comical monk shows his love toward the animal and the animal feedbacks makes people think of the harmony between the human beings with other animals, their sympathy to each other in such a peaceful environment.
Drums, cymbals and gongs play a vital part in any “Lan, Lion and Dragon” dances, which creates the harmonious sound combination. The drum used in these dances is called the “seven stars” drum. The drummer must either be the head of the troupe or the first assistant of the head. They have different rhythms for each movement such as: greeting, running, lying, climbing up and down, sometimes really fast, sometimes really slow, sometimes alike the battle command; for all these, it is possible to tell people about the strong impetus of the Lan, the Lion and the Dragon. Wherever people hear the sound of the “seven star” drum, they know that there is a dance to come, and following that will be spring time happy spirit.
Adding more to those dances there are also some martial art performances. Those martial art students must take classes such as cudgel, stick, bisento, sword, short and long “guan dao”… They are the martial art students of the dancing groups or troupes, and often have to pass the traditional “18 martial art lessons”, mostly originated in China. They also have to take some physical training so that they are able to use their hand or foot to break a pile of bricks or tiles. Those students can do the solo, in pair or group performances. The most spectacular one is the La Han Building-up performance, in which there are both the martial art and tree building up by people standing on each other shoulders to make 2 big trees, resembling the La Han.
The Lan – Lion – Dragon dances are on their fast development together with other form of traditional arts. In everyday life, wherever there is a construction set-out, accomplishment or congratulation ceremony, there is a Lan – Lion – Dragon performance as those three are the symbols of Prosperity, Success and Happiness. It is not only a kind of traditional folklore form of art but also the competitions for groups and countries where this kind of performance is nurtured.
In addition to that, every time when the spring comes, people often organize festivals which includes many traditional games such as swinging, wrestling, buffalo fighting, boat racing, some traditional singing … but it seems to be that people are mostly fond of the Lan – Lion – Dragon dancing as it reflects the national typical tradition, the cultural and artistic aspects, something special and uniquely Asian, suitable for the old and young interest. The spring stays the same for thousands of years. As so the dances of Lan – Lion and Dragon.