PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – A Portland lion dance group is gearing up for a busy couple weeks as the Lunar New Year celebration begins Sunday and continues until February 5.
White Lotus Dragon & Lion Dance was founded in 2015 and performs around Oregon and Southwest Washington for events like Lunar New Year and other celebrations. Executive Director Nhan Danh said the performances are a way to share Southeast Asian culture with the community, but they also serve a greater purpose.
“Lion dancing is used to scare away evil spirits and bring in good luck, especially during auspicious events such as grand openings, weddings, the Lunar New Year celebration and other celebrations where you want the most positive energy coming towards the event,” he explained.
Lion dances and dragon dances are both traditionally performed in Chinese, Vietnamese and other Asian cultures. In the lion dance, two performers dress in a lion costume and mimic the animal’s movement. Dragon dance is similar, but it’s performed by 9-15 people. They hold the dragon up on poles to control its movement.
What started as a group of 11 performers with White Lotus Dragon & Lion Dance has now grown to 52 members. Danh has even expanded his work to form the White Lotus Foundation in 2021.
Part of the foundation includes the lion and dragon dancing, but it also supports youth leadership events and social events for the Asian American Pacific Islander Community.
Members of White Lotus Dragon & Lion Dance range from kids in seventh grade to young adults. Danh, 27, has spent years working to ensure the group feels safe and like a family for its members.
He said it’s more than just an extracurricular activity for kids to learn how to perform lion and dragon dances. He and the older members help mentor them and teach them how to appreciate their culture.
“Being able to bridge the gap of modern day thinking and society to this traditional art form, by being able to bridge that and balancing it out, that’s kind of how we’ve been successful with keeping the youth program going,” Danh said.
His passion for the traditional dance and mentoring youth has stood out to Jeff Chow, owner and operator of Mama Chow’s Kitchen food cart.
Since opening his food cart in Portland in 2014, Chow has asked lion dancers to perform in front of the cart every year to bless it for Chinese New Year. In earlier years, he hired other groups, but many of them stopped performing or became harder to book.
White Lotus Dragon & Lion Dance has remained reliable over the years and he now hires them annually.
Chow had the opportunity to get to know Danh and the group better when stopped by one of the group’s rehearsals after he heard the sound of their drums while they were practicing at a storage facility along 82nd Avenue.
“It seems like they all enjoy it,” Chow said. “It seems like the energy that’s created when you perform in public, it instills so much confidence in kids, especially kids who don’t speak English; that’s not their first language.”
Chow said he was one of those kids growing up. English was his second language and it wasn’t always easy as a kid.
Now as an adult and business owner, he’s impressed to see Danh, a young man, give so many kids an inclusive, welcoming place where they can gather and not be bullied and learn more about their culture.
Danh said his love for lion dance began as a child. His parents had him watch VHS tapes of Vietnamese musicals when he was young to help him learn Vietnamese vocabulary. One of the tapes always showed lion dancing in the background and Danh was fascinated.
After trips to Vietnam, Danh’s father would bring him back lion dance costumes and he would ask to perform for family members and friends. He then performed in talent shows and joined the lion dancers in the Buddhist youth group. When he went to college, he began pursuing it more passionately. That was when he helped found White Lotus Dragon & Lion Dance.
“All in all I think my natural passion, no one pushing it on me, nobody forcing me to do it, was able to stick with me and build my passion and motivation into promoting the art naturally, which is why I still do it,” he said.
He sees that same passion in the kids he mentors now. For some of them, he said their parents don’t approve of them participating in lion dance, but it means so much to them that they’ll still find a way to make it to rehearsals.
White Lotus Dragon & Lion Dance is still accepting new members. Anyone interested in joining can contact the group through its website.
For the Lunar New Year, the lion dance symbolizes prosperity and good luck. With the holiday on Sunday, White Lotus Dragon & Lion Dance has many upcoming performances the public is invited to attend. Danh said the best way to learn about upcoming events is to follow the group on Instagram.
Here are some of the upcoming performances.
Saturday, January 21, 2023
- 10 a.m. Portland International Airport
- 11:30 a.m. Hui Lin Temple
- 2 p.m. Happy Valley Library
- 2 p.m., 4:30 p.m., 8:30 p.m. Oregon Convention Center
- 11:30 p.m. Chua Nam Quang
Sunday, January 22, 2023
- 8:30 a.m. Luc Lac
- 10 a.m. HK Cafe
- 11 a.m. Pho Da Lat
- 12 p.m. Vancouver Mall
- 1 p.m. SF Supermarket
- 4 p.m. Spirit Mountain Casino
- 7 p.m. The Sports Bra
Thursday, January 26, 2023
- 8 p.m. ilani Casino
Sunday, January 29, 2023
- 11:30 a.m. Mama Chow’s Kitchen’s reopening celebration
Danh also invites the public to join White Lotus Dragon & Lion Dance at the 2023 Spring Festival at the Redd Event Space in Southeast Portland. The event will be an indoor and outdoor night market that will focus on young adults. Organizers have curated a list of Portland AAPI musical performers who will entertain guests throughout the night.