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    Year of the Goat

    Good fortune follows them

    Dancers bearing fanciful puppets have an ancient duty to fulfill: chasing away evil spirits at the start of the Chinese New Year.

    [Times photo: Toni L. Sandys]
    Adam Stowe, from left, Guill Rios, Joe Groves and Martin Rokicki carry a 50-foot dragon during the Gasparilla Children's Parade last week in Tampa.

    By CANDACE RONDEAUX, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published January 31, 2003

    TAMPA -- "Be like the dragon. Be like the dragon," Adam Stowe chants as he heads toward the parking lot.

    The night air is crisp, but after just a few minutes in the lot, Stowe is steaming and sweating. He groans beneath the weight of 50 feet of silk, satin, bamboo and papier mache.

    "C'mon, keep that head up," a shout rings out over the blacktop.

    Stowe sucks in his gut, hefts the 5 foot long aluminum pole a few inches higher than his shoulders. The giant gold horned beast above him dips and dives against a strip mall backdrop of red neon discount store marquees.

    The 24-year-old Tampa salesman couldn't be any further from Beijing if he were on the moon. But you can almost smell the musty tang of cheap Chinese firecrackers in the air as he and nine other students of the Wah Lum Kung Fu Performance Team put all their muscle into making an enormous dragon puppet dance.

    The ritual beast is just one of the fanciful creatures the kung fu school will use to mark the start of the Chinese New Year on Saturday. There are lions, too. They jump, gyrate and jingle. About the only thing they don't do is roar.

    But they'll be making lots of noise when they ring in the Year of the Goat at bay area businesses celebrating the transition from 4699 to 4700 on the Chinese calendar. About a dozen restaurants in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater booked the troupe for the two-week New Year's celebration, which typically starts the day before the rise of a new moon in late January or mid February.

    Roughly 7,000 Chinese nationals and Chinese-Americans live in the bay area, according to census figures. Many families will kick off the celebration with a special New Year's Eve feast today.

    Specially designed and manufactured by a family-run factory in Hong Kong, the puppets are used in a ritual dance thought to bring good luck and chase away evil spirits at the start of a new year. An actor wearing the pink-faced mask of a Happy Buddha leads the performers through restaurants and businesses. Proprietors reward the lions for scaring away bad spirits with hong bao, red envelopes stuffed with good luck money.

    The nearly 2,000-year-old dance originated with the arrival of Persian traders in China who brought lions as gifts to the imperial court when they traveled the fabled Silk Road. A combination of music, drama, dance and history, the lion dance was traditionally performed by Buddhist monks until the mid-17th century. When a regime change destroyed China's Buddhist monasteries, the traditional dance migrated to schools that teach the martial art of kung fu, which preserve it to this day.

    "The lion is supposed to be like the soul of a kung fu school," said Tom Haase, the Tampa kung fu school's owner and instructor.

    Haase, 46, has helmed Wah Lum's 15-member troupe since moving his martial arts studio to Tampa from Merritt Island near Cape Canaveral six years ago. Twenty years of hard-core training with one of China's most revered kung fu masters has made him the toast of Chinese New Year's parties all over the Sunshine State. Haase's troupe performs at more than 100 events and travels to China almost yearly for tournaments. The school also performs for weddings and other special occasions, including the Gasparilla Children's Parade.

    The flurry of leonine lunges may look wild and chaotic to the uninitiated, but each move follows a pattern laid out centuries ago. The lion sleeps, stretches, scratches its tail, chases its prey. Students gather around a giant kettle drum as Haase narrates the dance steps to a slow drumbeat.

    "It's part of the traditional kung fu system. It's passed down from student to teacher. It's not something that you're going to learn from just anyone," Haase says.

    Haase's regular Saturday afternoon practice begins with the troupe running a wide circle, hefty free weights held aloft over their heads for 10 minutes.

    "If you're going to be the lion head, you have to have strong enough arms to hold it up," Haase intones.

    Panting after the run, 10-year-old Julia Couto pairs up with another student beneath the lion's head while the others don Buddha masks and long black and red fans.

    "I like it," says Julia, "because you have to think that you're a big cat."

    Julia leaps left, then right. Straining beneath the 30-pound head, she yanks on a string and the lion's mouth and eyes snap. Soon the pink satin tail of a lion is undulating.

    "You have to be the animal. Once you get underneath there," says Haase, "it's like you're a whole different person."

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