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Year of the horse

February 11, 2002|By AARON CLAVERIE, Staff Writer

CALEXICO — Cultures melded here to ring in the Year of the Horse. Around 20 local Hispanic youths from the Calexico Martial Arts Academy performed traditional Chinese lion dances throughout town Saturday to mark the Chinese New Year.

For a small donation, the youths danced in front of local businesses to bring the establishments good luck this coming year. Three youths and their partners performed as white, yellow and blue lions. One person manipulated a kaleidoscopic lion mask featuring a movable trap for a mouth and bulging eyes while a partner crouched behind moving the lion tail.

While the lions danced, other youths in the dance team pounded big bass drums or clashed cymbals.

At Yum Yum Chinese Food on Imperial Avenue, the lion dancers entered the eatery to scare away evil spirits from owner Louie Wong's cash register. The lions blessed the kitchen and Wong himself before playfully bringing good luck to the restaurant's patrons.

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The lion dancers wrapped up an 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. day of Saturday performances at their Imperial Avenue academy where "Sipu" Alex Lee baptized a black lion head for future celebrations.

This weekend the dance team will hit the streets of Mexicali to bring good luck to businesses south of the border.

Later in the new year, the team will travel to the local exposition for the California Mid-Winter Fair & Fiesta and then up to San Diego for the Del Mar Fair.

For almost all of the members of Lee's academy, the significance of the lion dance was completely foreign when they joined the academy.

The guys in the lion dance team said they joined the academy to mimic the martial arts moves they had seen on television shows or movies. They had no idea there was such a wealth of culture and tradition that went along with learning those moves.

For Lee, teaching his charges the history of why they do something is as important as teaching the how.

"I want to bring the Chinese community to the Valley," he said.

Speaking about the lion dances, Lee said he wants people to know, "It's not something strange. It's very common all throughout Chinese culture."

He said, "For us it means releasing all of the bad energies to bring good fortune for the year and a blessing of the year's new projects."

To instill a different tradition in his students and bring Chinese culture to the Valley, Lee has taught the members of the lion dance team the proper way to deflect a blow to the larynx and the moves of a lion.

Danny Sanchez, the 17-year-old who manipulated the yellow lion, said the game and movie "Mortal Kombat" were popular when he signed up with the academy.

"And Power Rangers, too," he added.

His yellow lion partner, Fausto Payán, 21, and the rest of the guys standing around him busted up with laughter.

When everyone stopped laughing, Robert San Pedro, a 20-year-old blue belt, explained how the lion dances complement martial arts training and keep a dancer in great shape.

The lion dancing performance "season" runs for around four to five months, from January to May.

This weekend in Mexicali the dancers will perform from 8 a.m. to almost midnight with various short breaks between dances.

For 21-year-old Herbert Rossette, making the lion come alive is the key. He sometimes takes on the persona of the blue lion.

San Pedro said the blue lion is young and playful so it's important to mimic what a curious young lion might do, such as move around with playful energy or inspect things with a curious air.

The other lions, the white and yellow lion, represent older lions.

San Pedro said the traditional representations of the lions illustrate a Chinese legend called the "Romance of the Three Kingdoms."

According to Rafe de Crespigny of Canberra's Australian National University, "The ‘Romance of the Three Kingdoms' holds a place among the Chinese people comparable to the tales of King Arthur, or Charlemagne and his paladins or, still more relevant to the present world, of Richard Lionheart and his crusaders."

The three kings of the respective kingdoms are acted out by corresponding lions.

The white lion stands for an old, wise lion, or Emperor Lui Bei, in the classic story.

San Pedro said the colors of the lions usually match the ages of the dance team members representing them.

So, for instance, the black lion head "baptized" on Saturday will be manipulated by young members of the dance team. Darker colors represent youth.

San Pedro joined the academy after doing his Calexico High School senior project on martial arts three years ago.

Julio Garcia, 22, and his brother Marco, 20, joined the academy around the same time six years ago. They have continually found the study and teachings that go with the martial arts lessons to be interesting and unique.

Marco Garcia said, "And it is something that will get us off the streets."

>> Staff Writer Aaron Claverie can be contacted at 337-3419 or claverie7@hotmail.com

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