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Together with her peers, Khuan Loke Dragon and Lion Dance Association drummer Mariam Abdul Nazar carried drums, cymbals and equipment into a waiting lorry after their lion dance performance in a mall.

In a troupe, there is no rank – everybody pulls their own weight during and after performances, and that includes doing some heavy lifting.

Despite what must’ve been a tiring day (one performance lasts about half an hour each, and they had two that day), the atmosphere was upbeat and Mariam was grinning as she talked to us, perched in the back of the lorry.

“It was a good day, and everything went as planned,” she said enthusiastically. “We were a bit nervous when the lion was reaching for the wire holding the lettuce, but it managed to reach! Now, we can all go and have dinner together,” she added.

It shouldn’t even matter anymore, but seeing a headscarf-clad girl in a lion dance troupe can still be surprising. After all, girls weren’t originally even allowed in a troupe, and lion dance is traditionally Chinese.

“Sure, I do get stares, but they’re mostly positive,” she said. “I used to get questions about whether we worship anything and what the drum skin is made of, but the answer is ‘No’ and ‘Buffalo’, and that’s it.”

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She joined six years ago, after her older brother, Nursultan Abdul Nazar, introduced her to the sport. Since then, he has climbed the ranks (newbies start by playing instruments) and become a dancer.

“I really enjoy myself when I perform,” the 21-year-old said shyly.

After much prodding from his sister (side note: they speak in Mandarin to each other!), he managed to tell us about his aspirations in lion dance.

“When we went to Macau for a competition last year, I was watching the teams from China, and I want to be as good as they are,” he said.

“I want to be a lion king.”

While her brother dreams of conquering the Pride Rock of lion dance, Mariam, however, likes the drums so much she has no intention of becoming a dancer too.

“Training is tough, and sometimes we have to train until my shoulders and arms hurt, but I really love playing the drums,” she said. “When I play, I release my stress.”

Mariam considers the sport her part-time job, and looks forward to the payout – angpows, which she gets on top of her pay from the lion dance association.

“When we perform, we get angpows! During Chinese New Year I get even more angpows than I do during Hari Raya,” she said with a laugh.

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