Scientists have recently discovered a fascinating creature in the mountains of southern China. It has the thin legs of a horse and the large head of a lion. Surrounding its face is a massive amount of loose, fluffy hair. They call it the Lion Horse.
Something as simple as a horse stance can be done in multiple ways. Kung fu, Tai Chi, Karate, and even Tae Kwon Do utilize the horse stance. Although they all do the horse stance in a similar way, each style still has their own differences – even if it’s a small detail like the angle of the knees and feet. In southern Chinese martial arts, two major methods of horse stance exist. 二字鉗羊馬(Yee jee keem yeung ma) is the less common version mainly used in Wing Chun, featuring slightly bent knees and inward pointed toes. The more popular version, 四平馬(sei ping ma), is used in most other southern styles. Traditionally speaking, this is also the horse stance used in lion dancing. But recently, another version has appeared in the contemporary styles of lion dancing. I like to call it the “modified horse stance”.
Sei Ping Ma
The sei ping ma is very important in traditional kung fu; not having a good horse stance is the equivalence of having no kung fu. The parallel feet, bent knees, and straight back plants both feet securely onto the ground, allowing stabilization of the entire body. Since lion dancing is closely related to kung fu, it is not surprising that the sei ping ma is also the basic stance of lion dancing. All old kung fu movies that feature lion dancing show the lion dancers with strong, low horse stances.
From the front perspective, the strong and solid sei ping ma displays the ferocious attitude of a lion. But from the side, it doesn’t look too pretty. Notice the sharp dip in the picture above. Because the head dancer’s upper body has to be perpendicular to the floor, the tail hangs straight down from the base of the lion head. This sharp dip makes the lion look unnatural and a bit awkward. Also, using the sei ping ma will result in a neck-less lion; the neck is replaced by the sharp dip. More insight about the neck will be discussed later on.
Modified Horse Stance
I have no clue about the true origins of the modified horse stance, but it might have stemmed from the contemporary styles of Hok San lion dancing. From the waist down, the modified horse stance is completely identical to the sei ping ma. The difference lies in the angle of the upper body; it is not perpendicular to the floor like the sei ping ma. Instead, the entire upper body is angled approximately 45⁰ from the plane parallel to the floor. Although it is angled forward, the back is not hunched over. It should be slightly arched, pushing the buttocks outward a tad bit. In terms of traditional kung fu, this posture would break all the rules of a good horse stance.
Notice the smooth and gradual curve along the tail in the picture above. Also, the position of the lion head is pushed forward relative to the location of the legs, allowing the neck of the lion to be apparent. Most four-legged vertebrates with necks will have their heads pushed forward relative to their front legs, giving a gradual curve from the neck down toward their tails.
Pictured above is a lion in its natural posture. Note the head’s position relative to its front legs and the presence of a neck.
The sei ping ma and modified horse stance both give different appearances in the lion’s posture. The modified horse stance gives the lion a more realistic appearance, while the sei ping ma gives the lion a more ferocious look. Although there is a sharp dip in the tail when using the sei ping ma, the constant movement of the lion hides it. For those who use the modified horse stance, the gradual curve and presence of a neck will always give the lion a realistic look, whether the lion is moving or if it is posing for a picture. Traditions must be sacrificed for this type of realism.
“Well, which horse stance is the best??”
It all comes down to personal preference and the effectiveness of execution. An exciting performance can be done with the utilization of either stance. For a more traditional style of lion dancing, the sei ping ma is preferred. Many of the emotions are still portrayed well, but it will not be as realistic as the lion dancers who utilize the movements and emotions of an actual feline. The modified horse stance is preferred for the contemporary styles that portray real cats. The movements and emotions represent a cat, but the dance itself looks very different from traditional lion dancing.
Personally, I use the modified horse stance for my hybrid style of lion dancing. Although I like the realistic emotions of contemporary lion dance, there are many aspects of traditional lion dance that I use too. By mixing bits and pieces from both styles, I’ve made a style that’s unique to me. The modified horse stance is one of those bits and pieces.