Shaler Area students bring art form of lion dance to life

| Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2013, 9:01 p.m.

A group of Shaler Area students are taking the lessons they learned in an after-school program and applying them to the ancient Chinese art form of lion dance.

Instructors with Gong Lung, Steel Dragon Kung Fu and Lion Dance school, in Lawrenceville, have been teaching beginning kung fu classes to elementary students at Reserve Primary School for nearly a decade, and at least three young students have advanced to apply those skills to performing lion dance.

Madison Rhodes, 16, Austin Kruse, 13, and Stephen Kaib, 11, all of Reserve Township, were introduced to kung fu by Chris Young, instructor and owner of Steel Dragon at the primary school while students there.

Their interest in the sport and art led each of them to continue classes at Steel Dragon after they graduated from the primary school and now they participate in lion dance teams as well as kung fu classes.

“Kung fu is the base fundamentals, then you apply it to lion dance,” said Rhodes, an 11th-grader at Shaler Area High School.

Lion dance is a Chinese tradition that dates back more than 1,500 years. It involves a team of two people to play the lion, which includes wearing a fabric costume and carry a 25 to 35 pound paper mache mask. Other team members perform the music on drums, cymbals and gongs or play other characters in the dance.

The dances can be used to tell a story, bring good luck or to entertain. During the dance, the lion must perform different tasks, which challenge the team's athleticism and kung fu techniques.

Young, of Bloomfield, has been interested in martial arts and lion dance since he was 3 years old and would visit California's Chinatowns with his family. After he moved to Pittsburgh to study, Young opened the kung fu school out of a desire to teach lion dance.

“All I really wanted to do was lion dance but to do that, you need to learn martial arts and it just kind of expanded from there,” he said. “It's used to show how good your kung fu is without showing how you fight.”

Students with Steel Dragon have performed lion dances at weddings, cultural festivals and grand opening celebrations. In August, Rhodes and Kaib were part of the Steel Dragon group that performed a lion dance for Millvale Community Library's grand opening. And the students are practicing to perform at the upcoming Thanksgiving Day parade and Chinese New Year celebrations in January.

Kruse, an eighth-grader at Shaler Area Middle School, said practicing the lion dance strengthens their kung fu stances and flow because of how closely the two are tied together. Kruse, like many of the students at the school, has practiced each position of the lion dance team and enjoys exploring a different cultural art form. “It's unique and not a lot of people do it around here,” he said.

Young's family is originally from Southern China where lion dance is strongly tied to the area's culture. Young said because of his family's ancestry, he feels a strong connection to passing on the traditions of kung fu and lion dance.

“It's an art and treasure to keep alive,” he said “I want to pass on this information.”

“This is great stuff that needs to be preserved. It teaches a lot of life lessons. To me it's like Shakespeare. It's not just a great story, it talks a lot about humanity.”

Young said the lion dance also adds to the diversity in Pittsburgh where the art form practiced by a smaller population and is looking forward to developing his students' talents and abilities.

“We can add something to the Pittsburgh environment to make it better,” he said. “I like this feeling we can bring something to this really vibrant mix.”

Bethany Hofstetter is a staff writer with Trib Total Media. She can be reached at

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