Tucked away in a pass beneath the shadow of a great serpentine mountain range, a group of Asian acrobats demonstrates an uncannily difficult folk art for an awed audience. Since the eighth century, people have come from far and wide to witness this spectacle.
This month, though, you won’t find The Chinese Golden Dragon Acrobats amid the misty hills of the Xinjiang Province — but in our own mountains, just 20 minutes north of Asheville at Mars Hill College.
The acrobats mix the flowing energy of the martial arts, the grace of ballet and the danger of skydiving in their trade — polished with deft athleticism and nuanced theatrics.
To date, they have performed in 65 countries on five continents.
Of course, the price for such notoriety is steep. From the age of 4, Chinese children seeking to become acrobats begin an extremely intense training program that will last them the rest of their lives. Acrobats-in-training spend five hours a day, six days a week doing exercises to sharpen their skills.
By the time of their first public performance, most acrobats have spent 12 years in training.
It’s no accident that the Golden Dragon Acrobats are tumbling through the region right now. Free-thinking Asheville has long been wont to recognize the Chinese New Year in one form or another.
Still, what most of us know about the holiday involves little more than big street parties with lots of fireworks and a giant dragon puppet. In fact, there are two Chinese New Years: the calendrical one that gets little fanfare, and the considerably more festive lunar New Year. For the Chinese, their New Year’s celebration is something inseparable from their native astrological system. Last year, as nearly all the major news sources reported, was the Year of the Dragon.
To be more precise, last year was the year of the Yang Metal Dragon, based on a 60-year cycle that follows the fortunes of people through the relationships of various elements. Generally, when we think of Chinese astrology, we think of the paper placemats at our favorite Hunan restaurant (whereupon you may have discovered that your significant other was the Rat you always suspected).
The more-correct system is based on the intermeshing cycles of two Chinese calendars: the 10-year elemental, or “heavenly,” calendar, and the 12-year animal, or “earthly,” one. Without this combination, the designation “Year of the Dragon” means roughly the same thing as “Age of Aquarius” — in other words, something very loose and highly imprecise, astrologically speaking.
Which brings us to 2001 — the year of the Yin Metal Snake.
Asheville’s own Mountain Dragon
Another celebration of note is the one held by Mountain Dragon Tai Chi/Kung Fu School, which includes demonstrations by students and teachers. Sure, this party may be a little Westernized, what with its hors d’oeuvres and wine, but the Fletcher School of Dance is considerably closer than the waters of the Yang Tze.
Seriously, though, Mountain Dragon has been celebrating the Chinese New Year for eight years — long before Clinton’s social secretary began practicing Feng Shui at the White House. School founder Mark Small notes that “snake people are dedicated to the mission of ensuring a balanced life. Their hypnotic charm and elegance can mean everyone benefits from their endeavors. Asheville’s dragons and snakes jointly promote chi kung, tai chi and kung fu lifestyles, and continue to promote kung fu as an Olympic sport. Asheville reaches around the world showcasing local master teachers and performers. One evening a year we celebrate these special people.
“With the elegance and style of Chinese traditional fitness and medical programs, we celebrate the pending good health and prosperity waiting us all in this Year of the Snake,” he concludes on a note of promise.