The Lion’s Heartbeat

When people think of lion dancing, the last thing that comes to mind would probably be the music behind the lion’s movements. In fact, during performances, the audience rarely concentrates on the musical instruments – the focal point of the lion dance is the lion. Honestly, I think this should be changed. Drumming is an art form in itself. It’s just as hard as learning the lion dance movements. A lot of people who learn drumming after learning the lion movements get discouraged easily because of this difficulty. Not only do drummers have to continuously play the beats, they have to look after the lion and adjust the music according to the situation. Basically, the music is what keeps the dance alive – it is the lion’s heartbeat.

When I first started lion dancing, I didn’t get to go under the lion head. Before I was able to learn the lion’s movements, I needed to be able to play the cymbals first. Playing the cymbals is a lot easier than playing the drum for most people. I was able to learn the cymbal beats pretty quickly, so my Sifu decided to teach me drumming too. The first thing I learned was the “proper” way to hold the drum sticks. I was taught to hold it gently with my thumb and index finger, like this:

Picture taken from

Just kidding.
But actually, that’s exactly what I was told to do. The drum sticks should be held with the thumb and index finger. The three remaining fingers just acts as extra support. Both the thumb and index finger must grip the drum stick quite well, or it will go flying into the audience as the performance begins.

Although this was taught to me as the proper way to hold drum sticks, there are actually other techniques. For example, some people like to hold them similar to how they hold a hammer. This technique is quite apparent in some old kung fu movies that feature lion dancing, where the drummer is shown holding the drum sticks quite firmly with all fingers.

After I was taught the proper way to hold drum sticks, my Sifu proceeded to teach me the basics of the Choy Li Fut lion dance drum beats. They are actually a bit a different than the traditional Fut San lion dance beats*, although there are some similar elements in it.

For the southern Chinese styles of lion dancing, there are quite a bit of drumming variations. They correspond with the different lion dance styles that have emerged from various kung fu families. Some examples of these include Hung Ga and Jow Ga.

Hok San lion dance drumming is almost completely different than Fut San lion dance drumming. There are some similarities, but a lot of the beats represent a real heartbeat. This concept is quite hard to explain, but a video should help.

Notice how often the drummer transitions into a “doong doong” beat, which represents a heartbeat. You can see the drummer moving his arms in circular motions as he drums this beat.

I’m pretty sure there are many other styles of lion dance drumming that I’ve never heard of. Please leave a comment if you know of some!

*There is a proper term for traditional Fut San lion dance drumming. I’ve forgotten what it was though!

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