Southern Style Lion Dance hung gar
The hung gar lion looks more brutish. Its face has sharp, crisp edges. There are some dangly tassels on the lion, but not many. There is a clear seperation of the colors on the lion; imagine a coloring book where everything is neatly in its line. The Southern lion dances alone.
Northern Style Lion Dance shaolin
The lion looks like a fluffy toy dog. The majority of the lion is decked out in danglies which makes it look more like a fluppy dog. The colors in the fur blend. The Northern lion usually dances in pairs.
The Koreans and Taiwanese also have lion dances. There are two people to operate a lion, more than that and it becomes a dragon dance.
The music used for the lion dance is called the Tai-pin and is believed to have been composed around 951-960 a.d. during the Chow dynasty.*
Lion dancing used to be used to exorcise the imperial palace. Every new year, they would cleanse the palace spiritually (as well as physically) by having the twelve sacred animals (of the Chinese zodiac?) dance through the palace three times. The Buddhists would also use the lion for blessing ceremonies for businesses. "In 1644, when the Manchurians took over China, the Buddhist temples were destroyed and practitioners (of lion dancing) were killed or scattered... Shopkeepers and other still wanted the lion's blessings on their businesses. The problem they ran into was that the Buddhist temples were no longer operating. They turned instead to the Gung Fu practitioners. Thus Lion Dancing came to be associated with the Gung Fu schools more than with Buddhism."** The purpose of the lion dance these days is, more or less, the same: to bring luck and happiness. It is performed for Chinese New Years and sometimes for openings of restaurants, banquets, and weddings.
Traditionally, kung fu schools would hold lion dancing contests during Chinese New Years. The lion who successfully fought off all other lions would win a prize. If you've got a good background in martial arts movies, there are some examples of the high competition that is involved. At the moment, I can't think of a good example, but I know that in one of the Unce Upon A Time In China movies, there is a (brief, but cool) lion dance. I would like to add that you should NEVER TOUCH THE HORN OF A LION... lest you want an entire martial arts school to come kick your ass. For some reason I'm not sure of, this is an offense to the kwoon.
A typical lion dance is as follows:
The lion sleeps and wakes up (and maybe grooms itself). He looks for food, and usually there is a pole dangling a head of lettuce, he "eats" the food. Then, spits it at the audience, which is considered good luck because lettuce symbolizes wealth. So, symbolically, the lion spreads wealth. Then, since he has done his job (blessing the crowd), he bows three times and goes back to sleep.
* Source: http://www.visitsarawak.com/wushu/liondance.html
** Source: http://www.geocities.com/lionscave1/Articles/Myth.html