Don’t call the Bronx Zoo or the ASPCA. It’s true a lion was loose in Van Cortlandt Park, but it was there to dance, not devour. The colorful feline predator was actually a two-person puppet participating in the park’s popular Barefoot Dancing series.
Since 2007, when it moved from Wave Hill, the series has brought a different unique style of dance to the park at 6:30 p.m. on Thursdays in summer. This year’s program began on July 11, and last Thursday it was the lion’s turn to edify and entertain as part of a traditional Lion Dance.
The indigenous Chinese dance, which dates back hundreds of years, was performed by the Austin, Texas-based Keito Academy of Ethno Preforming Arts, a 20-year-old academy that has revived and preformed indigenous dances from around the world throughout the United States.
Jaime Flood, a first timer to the event, thought it provided an exceptional chance to culturally enrich children. “It lets them see and experience different cultures, especially for inner-city kids who don’t have that opportunity,” she said.
The dance incorporates a two-person lion costume reminiscent of the dragon costumes often associated with Chinese celebrations. Both costumes consist of a headpiece and a long cape, but the lion costume uses just two people, whereas the dragon costume can have as many as 30 according to conductor and troupe leader, Keito St. James.
Mr. James also gave a brief history of the lion tradition during the performance, which he says migrated from India. He credits Buddha for introducing the tradition to China. In addition to the lion costume, the dance also features two masked Buddhas, one male and one female.
The lion’s headpiece was intricately decorated with movable eyelids and a mouth. Mr. James says this is identical to the headpieces that would have been used in ancient Chinese lion dances. The dance was accompanied by a monotonous drum, maintained by Mr. James, and cymbals played by different performers throughout the show. The lion moved with the rhythm seamlessly, with the movements of the dancers changing with the speed and the intensity of the drum beats.
The dancers interacted with the audience in a variety of ways and were not shy about intruding into the spectators’ personal space. They wandered amongst the seated audience, hoping to engage them, and eventually invited spectators, mostly children but some adults, to learn some of the simpler dance steps.
Although many of the children started out uneasy with the giant lion head, they began to warm up to it, and those who volunteered to learn the steps had an opportunity to form a human train beneath the cape of the lion and follow the dancer in the headpiece as the drumming continued. All was going well until the conductor prompted the lion to “roll over,” a move expertly completed earlier in the performance by a duo of dancers in the lion costume, but upon the children’s attempt, the line promptly fell apart, as they simultaneously rolled onto the ground giggling uncontrollably.
Rurik Asher Baumrin and Colin Mark, founders of the newly conceived “Fill a Room” book drive, were also at the event, reading out loud to children who wandered from the dancing, raising awareness about their organization and taking any book donations.
The young men, both newly graduated from Horace Mann School, said they created the initiative, with support from Horace Mann to “encourage high literacy” and spearhead “a cultural shift to make reading more popular.”
The two have recently donated 500 books to the Safe Horizons Women’s Shelter and will be present and taking donations at the next two Barefoot Dancing events at Van Cortlandt Park.
Barefoot Dancing will return Aug. 1 with a performance by The Greek American Folklore Society at 6:30 p.m.