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Vancouver group reviving rare Chinese 'unicorn' dance hosting free performance, workshop

"We'll let people [practice with the qilin] heads and the instruments"
Members of the Vancouver Tsung Tsin Hakka Association are learning the Qilin dance (qilin are a mythological Chinese character akin to a unicorn).

Most Vancouverites are familiar with the traditional Chinese lion and dragon dances that take place around the city, but a group is aiming to bring back a rare, but related, dance.

The qilin is akin to the unicorn in Chinese mythology; the Vancouver Tsung Tsin Hakka Association is reviving the dance locally which is closely associated with the Hakka people.

The Hakka

Melody Ma, a member of Chinatown Together (who is co-hosting the event) and the Hakka, describes it as "a rare dance" that is an important piece of Hakka culture - a people who have faced oppression throughout history.

The Hakka, she explains, are a subgroup of the Han, but without a specific location associated with them; Hakka translates into "guest people."

"Because Hakka have no land we call our own it's so important we keep these traditions alive wherever [we] are," Ma adds.

The qilin dance

In Vancouver, the qilin dance hasn't been performed in at least a decade Ma says, and there's a single master here teaching the dance; Vincent Vung may be the only qilin dance master in western Canada.

But a group of multigenerational locals, Hakka and non-Hakka, are intent on bringing the dance back to Vancouver.

Ma explains that while it's a precarious cultural tradition, there's hope they'll preserve the 450-year-old dance for future generations.

The dance is different from the lion and dragon dances in a few notable ways, including how the qilin is much more colourful, Ma describes.

"The body of the qilin is longer, yellow, black, green, red. The colours represent the elements of the earth," she says.

Its head is also different and could feature words, butterflies, and images.

The music employs different drums and cymbals, and, while other similar traditional Chinese dances have the drum lead the music, for the qilin, dance cymbals take the lead and drums are optional.

"Everything is improvised," Ma notes.

The workshop: Free and family-friendly

On Saturday, April 13, Chinatown Together and the Hakka association will be hosting a qilin dance workshop for anyone interested. It'll be a free, family-friendly event.

"There'll be a live demo and dance at the top," says Ma.

The demo and dance will be followed by a warm-up and then trying out the movements associated with the qilin dance. Next, more hands-on experiences.

"We'll let people play with the heads and the instruments," says Ma.

There will also be Hakka food for attendees to try.

Reawaken the Chinese Unicorn: Hakka Qilin Dance Workshop

When: April 13 from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m.

Where: The Sun Yat Sen Courtyard - 578 Carrall St.

Cost: Free, but registration is requested