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More than money: Dragon dancers return to bring luck for the Year of the Rabbit

Text and Photos by George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jan 21 2023 04:35 PM | Updated as of Jan 21 2023 06:38 PM

Jayvee Sicat looks through his costume while performing a dance as Chinese New Year nears. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News
Jayvee Sicat looks through his costume while performing a dance as Chinese New Year nears. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

A chill hangs in the air in the early morning. On the ground, costumes and props in a rainbow of colors lend contrast to the drab grey floor, with a hint of sunlight adding a bit of brightness and warmth for the performers already waiting for vehicles that will bring them to their destination. As they wait, other dancers trickle in to pick up equipment and hype themselves up for their upcoming performance. A smile here and a wave there accompany the banter slowly filling the small alley near the Sicat residence where the group has decided to gather. In a few moments, the group mentored by Robert “Obet” Sicat will head out to a client, hoping to bring in auspiciousness and good fortune. 

Although quiet and still a bit slow due to the early hour, the excitement is palpable. A stark contrast from only two years ago when the COVID-19 pandemic turned the world upside down, especially hitting the performance industry hard. 

Officially called the Pink Panther Lion and Dragon Dance Group, many know them simply as the Sicat Brothers, a testament to how the family has committed themselves to the craft. While none of them work as dragon dancers full time, four of the 9 children as well as their matriarch Clarita remain active. The brothers have even branched out with their own dance groups. Yet come Chinese New Year, everyone works hand in hand to meet the demand, sharing clients and resources. 

This year, everything has returned to normal, according to 45-year old Robert. Three weeks before the start of the Year of the Rabbit, they find themselves swamped with clients forcing them to hire and train dancers to accommodate those eager to have them bring luck to their businesses. 

“Na-kontrata namin ng ochenta (P80,000). Dati nakukuha lang namin sila, 60. Ngayon tumaas nga kami, pumayag naman! Halos lahat nung apat na grupo namin, ganun. Ochenta ang isang labas,” says Robert of clients outside of a set vicinity. 

As such, clients expect to get their money’s worth so the brothers and their dance groups practice almost every night leading to the Chinese New Year. Starting at around 9 p.m., the sessions last for an hour or two, making sure every step is in sync with the patterned beats, every move purposeful. 

To augment their income, the brothers also accept costume and prop making, cashing in on their popularity as one of the most established groups in Chinatown. 

One of the costumes they made for this year is a rabbit-inspired lion head. “Ngayon lang yan. First time may gumawa n'yang rabbit na ulo,” says Therry, who led its build and painting. 

Showtime

Starting off the veritable gauntlet of clients just for Friday is a branch of a popular bank in Binondo. The bank has several branches in Manila’s Chinatown, and two of the Sicat siblings, 33-year old Therry and 28-year old Jayvee, accompanied by 15 other dancers and assistants are lucky enough to dance in 11 of them just on that day. A grocery store and a branch of a different bank added in for good measure. 

Each visit earns them around P2,500. This does not include the angpao containing money hanging from the ceilings which the group gets as part of the dance. Each branch had at least eight envelopes, one as many as 15, the amount inside left to the branch manager’s discretion. Not bad for a day’s work, the time and sweat spent from the practice and preparations notwithstanding. 

On some dances, the brothers bring their families along to teach the next generation the ropes. 

“Pag malalapit lang, sinasama namin ang mga anak namin, 'pag 'di maselan ang kliyente at pwede sila isama. Para paglaki nila, alam nila yung lion dance. Sa ganun din po ako natuto nung 7-years-old palang ako,” says Jayvee.

Glad to be back

Since Jan. 18, several groups under the Sicat brothers have been fully booked and holding performances non-stop. Although the job is physically and mentally exhausting, Jayvee says that it is all worth it. Dancing allows them to earn for their families while providing a source of livelihood for others as well. 

For Jayvee, the fruits of his labor do not end at the financial rewards.

“Masaya po kami sobra, kasi ilang taon din kami tumumal dahil sa pandemic. Sanay na kami kasi alam namin pagtapos ng Chinese New Year, may panggastos kami sa mga anak namin. Masaya ako kasi lalong dumadami ang mga kaibigan ko. Nawawala din pagod namin 'pag nakikita namin yung mga tao naming masaya pagka-kuha nila ng sahod nila.”

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The Sicat brothers work on costumes and props inside their home in Binondo, Manila on Jan. 12, 2023. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

33-year-old Therry kisses his youngest daughter as they continue to work on lion props inside their family compound on Jan. 12, 2023. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

Robert works on costumes that were made to order, more than a week before Chinese New Year. Jan. 12, 2023. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

70-year-old Clarita Sicat, mother of the Sicat brothers, speaks to her own group of lion and dragon dancers during an evening rehearsal session in Binondo, Manila on Jan. 13, 2023. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

Young dragon dancers rehearse their routines in the evening along an empty street in Binondo, Manila on Jan. 13, 2023. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

New dragon dancers take a break after a rehearsal on Jan. 13, 2023. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

New dragon dancers practice their routines on Jan. 13, 2023. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

New dragon dancers practice their routines on Jan. 13, 2023. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

A view of the paintings on the walls inside the home of the Sicat family on Jan. 13, 2023. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

Different tokens and awards are displayed inside the house of Robert and his family, on Jan. 13, 2023. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

Robert secures equipment onto his van as they prepare for one of their performances scheduled in Makati City, on Jan. 20, 2023. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

Lion dancers carry props as they prepare to head to their first venue on Jan. 20, 2023. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

The group prepares for their first performance for the day at a bank within their neighborhood in Binondo, Manila on Jan. 20, 2023. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

Female members of the group assist the performers and film their dance numbers inside a bank in Binondo, Manila on Jan. 20, 2023. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

Bank employees enjoy the lion dance performance in Binondo, Manila on Jan. 20, 2023. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

The rabbit-inspired lion costume performs a number inside the vault of a bank in Binondo, Manila on Jan. 20, 2023. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

The dancers put several pieces of angpao gathered during performances into a bag carried by one of their members on Jan. 20, 2023. According to them, the contents of the envelopes vary from P500 up to P3,000 each, depending on the client. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

A lion dancer lifts his costume for a quick breather after a performance in Binondo, Manila on Jan. 20, 2023. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

The wives and children of the Sicat brothers join them to watch the performances in Binondo, Manila on Jan. 20, 2023. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

Jayvee leads the group as they rehearse their routine in between performances in Binondo, Manila on Jan. 20, 2023. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

Dancers carry the lion heads as they move to their next venue in Binondo, Manila on Jan. 20, 2023. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

Dancers buy buko juice from a vendor as they take a break from performances in Binondo, Manila on Jan. 20, 2023. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

The group heads to the next venue for their performance, a bank within their neighborhood in Binondo, Manila on Jan. 20, 2023. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

The group heads to their next performance on Jan. 20, 2023. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

The group heads to the first venue of their performance on Jan. 20, 2023. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

Jayvee Sicat looks through his costume during a performance in Binondo, Manila on Jan. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

The group heads out to perform at another bank branch on Jan. 20, 2023. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

Jayvee and the rest of the lion dancers have their late lunch inside the Sicat residence after performing for several venues in Binondo, Manila on Jan. 20, 2023. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

The group walk to their next venue on Jan. 20, 2023. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

The group heads to the next venue for their performance, a bank within their neighborhood in Binondo, Manila on Jan. 20, 2023. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News