Clad in a droopy purple sweat shirt, a tail of hair snaking down from his otherwise closely cropped head, 11-year-old Alex Sujo looked more like he should be playing an electric guitar than a traditional Chinese drum.
But with his sleeves falling long on his thin arms, Alex tirelessly performed several minutes on the large drum that was set up in the Castelar Elementary School auditorium, impressing a couple of adult onlookers with his expertise and grace. Some of his schoolmates stood nearby, rapidly clanging cymbals with equal gusto.
Seconds later, the boys were running around the auditorium, tossing a small plastic football to one another and yelling.
The group of about a dozen 9- to 14-year-olds has been practicing the traditional lion dance for the Chinese New Year parade.
A group of female counterparts will also be in the Feb. 13 event, performing traditional fan-and-ribbon dances.
Castelar’s drill team will perform in the parade to represent the American element of the students’ heritage.
But even the traditional Chinese dances take on a multicultural flavor when performed by the children at Castelar; students of Vietnamese, Latino and African-American heritage are among the performers.
In the ages-old lion dance to scare away evil spirits, several people carry a papier-mache lion head and its fabric body, making the colorful beast dance to a staccato drum beat and cymbals. Other dancers don papier-mache masks and dance alongside.
Children of Chinese heritage learn the dance from the time they are young, according to Fungi Ng, a Chinatown native who supervises recreational activities, including the lion dance performances, for local youths.
The after-school lion dancing practices at Castelar are “really to give the kids something to do, so they stay out of trouble,” said Ng, 24, who attends Los Angeles City College.
During one rehearsal last week, the boys seemed more interested in throwing a football around than practicing the ancient dance.
But when Ng called upon them individually, the boys were enthusiastic about practicing the drums and cymbals and even donning masks to portray women.
In his quiet manner, Ng directed the boys with masks to hold straw fans and parasols and skip around the room with their knees high.
“Now hold hands and do it,” he told David Chau and Tuan Nguyen, both 11.
“Eeeuuww,” Tuan responded, with a grimace. But he cheerfully followed Ng’s directions.
Alex, who has performed the lion dance at various public events in Chinatown over the last three years, and Daniel Vinh, 14, who has performed for five years, were the veterans of the group.
Asked why they keep coming back, Alex and Daniel shrugged, while others laughed and piped in: “Because we get out of school early to practice!”
Joked 12-year-old Kendall Sor: “Nah, we get paid.”