A lion tamer expertly led three lions up and down a platform in front of Alex Thomas Jr. Plaza Saturday as a large crowd watched just feet away.
The lions were, in fact, not large cats, but young men in bright costumes, dancing as part of the second annual Lantern Festival in downtown Ukiah.
Put on as a collaboration of the City of 10,000 Buddhas and the Ukiah Main Street Program, the festival was celebrating the Year of the Snake, which began Feb. 10.
Each lion featured two dancers from the Lion and Dragon Dancing School, one who serves as the tail and one who serves as the head.
Hubert Liu, 15, a student at Developing Virtue, was the tail in his lion, explaining that each part takes strength and skill, but being the tail requires a bit more leg strength.
As the lions danced, the tail often served as the support for the head, who often stands on the tail’s legs as the pair moves. Working in tandem, each pair climbed up onto a wooden platform to balance on sections about the size of Frisbees.
“Both are equally hard,” Liu said of the roles of head and tail, adding that being the head requires more jumping and a lot of endurance in your arms and back.
The head to Liu’s tail was Jensen Tan, 13, who was quite a bit smaller than Liu. Liu said it is understandably ideal to have the head be smaller than the tail, and to have the partners spend many hours getting used to each other before dancing together as a lion.
Tan said they practice six hours a week, and much of that includes exercises where Tan stands on Liu’s legs.
Liu said he became interested in lion dancing after traveling to Malaysia with some fellow students and seeing it performed there, and this was his second year dancing himself.
To help the dancers continue and perform elsewhere, other students were selling T-shirts to raise money.
Student Makela Yebez, 14, said he was also a dancer but was sidelined because of problems with his back. He said the dancers recently went to Oakland, and were now raising money for their planned trip to Los Angeles for Spring Break.
Other performers Saturday included umbrella dancers, orchestras and dragon dancers.