I took a drive to Yorkshire and was amazed by the beautiful scenery in the sunshine that could easily have been Tuscany or New Zealand. I had that feeling I often have when I volunteer somewhere new, “where on earth am I going?” As the roads twisted and got narrower my destination finally appeared, Hebden Bridge or at least an industrial estate in Hebden Bridge. A helpful man told me where I could park and I wandered back past giant paper tissue rockets, planes and birds straight out of a Beatles song. I found Holly and Dan who had asked me to attend the event. This wasn’t our first bizarre meeting. I had met them and my team in the Vale, a multi-purpose venue in Mossley in the dead of night and learnt how to move like a lion. It had struck me as being quite odd at the time but it was a fun evening. Their group was called Juba do Leão, translated meant the lion’s mane. They were looking for volunteers to operate a lion puppet, at their next carnival event. I had already volunteered for Cabassa Arts who had made the costumes for the group and now was my big performance opportunity albeit in the fabric of a lion. If someone had said I was going to be entering a lion as part of my volunteering challenge I would have thought they were quite mad but here I was in Hebden Bridge ready to climb into a lion. It took five people to operate and we had already discovered that height was an issue. Whoever was holding the head needed to be tall and strong. Even though it was made of Paper Mache I had only managed around ten minutes before getting tired. You needed someone quite tall for the shoulders in order to not make the lion look like it had a weird neck. One person operated the front legs, another the back legs and one the tail.
I had volunteered for the front legs, which meant standing under material with two bamboo canes in my hands. We assembled with groups of other people with musical instruments, costumes and stilt walkers ready to start our parade. The parade was called the Handmade Parade and happened every year. It brought together carnival professional alongside community groups and young people in a spectacle of noise and colour. I saw aliens, pilots, Norse Gods and spacemen. The bands began to play and we were off. Our job was to follow the stilt walking owls, which were surprisingly hard to find especially inside a lion. Chris who was the head of the lion moved us into position and we trotted behind. We walked down the road I had driven up which was now rammed with people and a sea of smart phones. We soon got into the character of our lion, which we had called Brian. Chris organised us by shouting “Brains” to get our attention.
The parade was slow at times, which gave us the opportunity to get into character and chase members of the public about. My favourite trick was to pat the press photographer on the head when he passed with my right front paw. We growled at children and swooped around. If the parade slowed to a standstill them we did our signature move in order to wow the crowds. It was a jump. I was in control of the jumps and would shout, “prepare for jump” and then the unsurprising code word “jump” and we leapt in the air to the awe of the waiting crowds.
There were several moments of worry on our journey. One sections of the route we got carried away wowing the crowd and the owls had disappeared in the distance and we had to spirit to catch up. Twice there was a hazard in the road and I had to shout “Cable!” or “Hole!” in order to stop the back of the lion and perhaps the entire band from tumbling down.
Being in the lion was brilliant, you got the cheers of the crowd but you didn’t get embarrassed because few saw your face; mostly just the press photographer as I took a swipe for him but I was gone in a blur. It made you be bold and cheeky “it wasn’t me, it was the lion”. It was sometimes hot under the lion but sunburn wasn’t a problem for us although sometimes the wind was. One hair-raising moment the wind took Brian and we went lurching to the left. We recovered by making it part of the dance.
We eventually ended up in a field full of people and after a few performances to the crowds we finished with a well-deserved rest in the glorious sunshine and a bite to eat. Our appetite was lion sized. For more information about Juba do Leão you can visit www.jubadoleao.com and see a short video diary of us learning to operate the lion.