Roaring success for Telok Kurau Primary's young lion dancers

Alfred Lee, 11, practising stunts as the lion head. Telok Kurau Primary has been crowned champion of the primary school category for seven straight years from 2009.
Alfred Lee, 11, practising stunts as the lion head. Telok Kurau Primary has been crowned champion of the primary school category for seven straight years from 2009.ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN

Bearing a lion head weighing 3kg, Kee Jun Kai leapt off the ground and overturned two chairs in a powerful kick, all in sync with the beat of the drums. At the tender age of 11, he has mastered stunts that even some adult performers find daunting.

"It was hard. I had to repeat the moves over and over again to get them right," he said.

Like Jun Kai, the other members of Telok Kurau Primary School's lion dance troupe are aged nine to 12 and no taller than 150cm.

Some may find it hard to believe that these children are capable of performing the lion dance.

A traditional Chinese art form performed during special occasions for good luck, the lion dance is usually performed by trained adults as the stunts require great strength and agility to execute.

But the young lion dancers at Telok Kurau Primary, who train two hours once a week, have proven that they are just as competent.

The team has been crowned champion of the primary school category for seven consecutive years since 2009.

It has also been ranked in the top 20 of the open category of the national lion dance competition over the same period, beating performers more than twice their height and age.

The school had started lion dance as a co-curricular activity (CCA) in 2000 as it wanted to welcome the late founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, an alumnus, with a lion dance performance when he visited the school that year.

The school invited coach Chan Keng Ngee, 40, to train a group of eight pupils, who became the first batch of lion dancers in the school.

As the pupils had no background in the dance, Mr Chan had to train them from scratch. He also struggled with getting sufficient funds for equipment and uniforms.

Even as a 30-strong group with adequate resources today, the lion dance CCA still struggles to recruit new members each year.

Said teacher in charge Yvonne Wu, 45: "Some parents are worried that their children might get injured. Pupils also quit when they think training is too tiring."

Members try to rope in their friends, but some do not stay long.

As Ms Wu noted: "Joining is one thing and staying is another."

Under the watchful eye of Mr Chan, the lion dancers are expected to uphold the highest level of discipline. The whole team is punished when one member is late, based on a "one for all, all for one" policy.

While Mr Chan ensures that all pupils follow safety rules, falling down is part and parcel of the process.

Irfan Zuhiri Zulini, 13, who returns to his alma mater to help his juniors every Wednesday, recalls falling multiple times when he practised the role of the lion head.

"Training was demanding, but it made me stronger both physically and mentally. I learnt not to give up when the going gets tough."

Mr Chan has also found the experience fulfilling. "Beyond competition results, it is heartening to watch the kids grow into responsible young adults," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 21, 2016, with the headline 'Roaring success for Telok Kurau Primary's young lion dancers'. Print Edition | Subscribe