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Why Australia's largest group of Chinese lion dancers is gathering in Bendigo this weekend

Spectacular jumps, careful choreography and lots of noise. 

It's physically and mentally testing for performers, while to onlookers, it's a loud and colourful celebration of Chinese culture. 

The "grand final" of Chinese lion dancing takes place this weekend at the Bendigo Easter Festival. 

It's usually the world's longest imperial dragon — Dai Gum Loong — that gets the spotlight at the festival.

Dai Gum Loong is the world's longest imperial dragon, at 125 metres.  (Supplied: Bendigo Tourism)

But accompanying the 125-metre-long dragon are 300 lion dancers from across the country, covered by bamboo and material, performing an ancient Chinese tradition that takes thousands of hours of training and preparation. 

"It can be very physical," lion team leader Clinton Miller said.

"It's also very mental; the goal is be the lion." 

"Once you become the lion, a lot of things flow naturally. It's all taxing on your body and then there's the cultural respect." 

Hundreds of performers will be in Bendigo, showcasing Lion Dancing.  (Supplied: Bendigo Tourism )

What is Chinese lion dancing?

Usually only seen in Australia for Chinese New Year celebrations or at special Chinese events, Mr Miller describes the Bendigo Easter Festival as "the grand final on the lion dancing calendar". 

It's the largest gathering of lion dancers in Australia, with more than 300 in attendance. 

"Easter not being an Asian celebration, it's become this wonderful thing where everyone's available and makes the effort to come to Bendigo for it. It's a real big family," Mr Miller said.

Clinton Miller has been a part of the local lion dance team for years.  (ABC Central Victoria: Shannon Schubert)

Lion dancing has long been associated with kung fu and the martial arts, with links to the Tang Dynasty.

One legend said the emperor was troubled by a nightmare that ended with Long, a rare and strange beast, saving him. 

That's one reason the lions came to symbolise good luck and wisdom in Chinese culture. 

Mr Miller has heard of another origin for the lions. 

"Where it could have come from is the story of the Nian, which is the Year Beast, that would eat all of the farmers crops." 

Chinese Lion Dancing is an ancient practice linked to the Tang Dynasty.  (ABC Central Victoria: Shannon Schubert)

"So, the villages created a fierce looking beast, similar to a lion, and that actually stopped the Nian from coming into the village and eating all their food, along with the noise, crackers, drums, and everything. 

"So that's why that's synonymous with Chinese New Year. That's one of the stories of the of the birth of the lion." 

Phoebe Lock started lion dancing was she was nine. (ABC Central Victoria: Shannon Schubert)

Teen discovers Chinese heritage through lion dancing

Growing up in Bendigo, Phoebe Skinner was petrified of the dragons and the lions. 

"I would make my mum take me into the museum, even though I had that fear. It was calling me ... even though I was absolutely terrified, I still begged Mum and we went," she said.

"And then we went the next day."

Despite her fear, at the age of 9 Phoebe joined Bendigo's lion dancing team. 

"Once I found out what the lions were, I felt an instant connection," she said. 

Phoebe was scared of the lions when she was young but always felt drawn to them. (ABC Central Victoria: Shannon Schubert)

Through her links to the Bendigo Chinese Association, she stumbled upon unknown Chinese ancestors. 

"We would go out to the graves and bless the Chinese graves," she said.

"Our Chinese family last name was Lock, and I saw that one of the Chinese cemeteries had Lock on them."

The cemetery discovery happened as her father was researching Bendigo's Chinese community, looking for possible ancestors. 

The lions play a key role in feeding, blessing and waking up dragon Dai Gum Loong.  (Supplied: Bendigo Tourism)

Why does Bendigo's Easter Festival feature dragons and lions?

Chinese traditions have been part of the Easter fair since its inception during the gold rush in the 1800s. 

"When the Chinese started participating, because they were very community-minded, they participated in the first couple and then thought ... we really need to show off our heritage," Mr Miller said. 

"So they started collecting money from the miners around Bendigo and collected artefacts from China." 

Lion dancers will perform all day Saturday and join in the gala parade on Sunday.  (ABC Central Victoria: Shannon Schubert)

Mr Miller says a lot of planning goes into the lion dancers part in the Bendigo Easter Festival. 

"The week before the ceremony we have a ceremony called Wongloong, it roughly translates to "all the dragons," he said.

"It is the traditional feeding of the imperial dragon that comes out to parade. They need to be fed with the pomelo leaf, they are blessed and slowly woken up and aroused."

But Saturday is the main event, with the official awakening of the dragon. 

The performers spend dozens of hours practising, in the weeks leading up to the Easter Festival.  (ABC Central Victoria: Shannon Schubert)

"The lions are escorts, they're the guardians of the dragons," Mr Miller explained.

"So, the lions are on show. 

"There'll be a lot of noise, a lot of actions, to try and get the dragons to wake up so they can come out the next day.

"The first program is called Xi Qing, which is 'joyous festival'. It's a bit more of an expressive performance. That goes for around two hours."

The first lion dancing performance is at 9am on Saturday, with the Awakening of the Dragon at 2pm Saturday. 

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