Olentangy Valley News

Powell school's lions work hard to keep crowds smiling

Martial artists learn special techniques to bring lion to life

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PAUL VERNON/THISWEEKNEWS
A lion dancer with Tony Brown's Kung Fu School in Powell pretends to eat Virginia Pishioneri as Allie Smith looks on July 19 during the Clintonville Farmers Market. Operated by two martial artists, the lions make appearances at events across central Ohio.
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Students of Tony Brown's Kung Fu School in Powell aren't just taught an ancient southern Chinese art -- they also learn how to spread luck.

Every move, stance and form they practice prepares them to be part of lively lion-dancing rituals at weddings, business grand openings and festivals.

During performances, two students navigate the lion, which is red to symbolize luck. Another student takes on the role of the happy Buddha, leading the lion as it interacts with the crowd and gobbles up donations from audience members.

Following close behind the lion are drummers whose music reflects the paper animal's improvisational dance.

"Lions weren't indigenous to China, so they'd never seen one," said Sifu Tony Brown of why the traditional southern Chinese lion resembles a dragon.

"One of the theories was that an emperor had a dream that these lions would be things that would protect him and they had a horn like a dragon and big eyes, so this is what they came up with."

Brown, who once owned seven studios in the Columbus area and still operates three schools in Norway, teaches Hung Gar Kung Fu out of his home in Powell. The style focuses on building tendons and muscles, which prepares fighters to defend themselves and use their strength to be entertaining lion dancers.

The partially retired instructor spends every morning training in his garden, but later this month, he'll have a change of scenery as he heads to Taiwan to further his skills and share his knowledge with others.

As the sole American participating in a two-week master's demonstration series, he'll work with a lion-dancing instructor.

"I usually take what I learn and bring it back to my students, so I'll be doing that, but I'm considering holding a lion-dancing class for those who are specifically interested in it," he said, pointing out that such arrangements would be announced on the Tony Brown Kung Fu School Facebook page.

After more than four decades of training others in martial arts, Brown, 64, typically takes on a select few students who have moved past the basics of kung fu that are necessary for the lion-dancing ritual. But his daughter, Eden, has carried on the tradition by hosting a weekly kung fu lesson outside Clintonville's Whetstone Community Center from noon to 2 p.m. Saturdays.

Everyone is invited to attend her beginner's class -- free once the community center fee is paid -- during which the first 20 to 30 minutes are spent in a stance called Ma Bo.

"A lot of stances like this one can be broken down in the lion as well," she said. "Chinese culture calls for you to be strong as a tree and rooted to the ground, so it's very important to link ourselves to the ground through our stance and strength so that it will be very hard to knock us over."

Eden Brown said when the group that dances every year at the Columbus Asian Festival is anticipating a performance, she changes the usual class routine by asking lion dancers to jump onto benches and even onto each other so they can perform similar moves while inside the lion.

Lion dancing for hire, at about $300 per performance, helps financially support the kung fu school, since lessons currently are free.

"I consider myself an older sister in that I'll teach you what I know and show you what I've been taught, but a lot of times, I've been working on my own training as well, so I don't feel that I should be charging people just yet," Eden Brown said.

At 29 years old, she has been training in Hung Gar Kung Fu with her father for 26 years.

The older Brown said any student who's interested in taking up martial arts should understand that it's a commitment to continually study new techniques and preserve what already has been learned.

But throughout the lifelong training process, he said lion dancing isn't the only perk.

"Kung fu has helped me find discipline and to keep my mind calm," he said. "You begin to recognize the voice within you."

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