Lion Dancing at the Lunar New Year: A Recipe for Women’s Empowerment

In Boston’s Chinatown, efforts to bring a lion to life makes these women feel powerful.

On a bitter cold Thursday night, a dozen women gathered in Chinatown to transform themselves into a lion.

Wearing comfortable black pants, red and yellow T-shirts, and sneakers, they stretched and jogged around the China Trade Center before getting down to business. And getting down to business, for these ladies, means donning a 6-foot-long lion costume and hoisting each other high in the air, all while balancing on stacked benches.

The Gund Kwok headquarters in the China Trade Center. —Kristi Palma / Boston.com staff

They are Gund Kwok, the only Asian women’s lion and dragon dance troupe in New England. And they have been practicing 2 1/2 hours every Thursday night this winter to perfect the Lion Dance, a traditional Chinese New Year dance. After performances at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and the Peabody Essex Museum this month, the troupe will take over Chinatown March 1 for a Lunar New Year Celebration Parade.

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“If it looks right, it looks easy,’’ said Cheng Imm Tan, the group’s founder, during a recent dress rehearsal. “It needs to look real.’’

What does it take, exactly, to make a 6-foot-long cloth and fur lion look real?

It takes two dancers working in tandem. One dances upright (the head) and one dances stooped over (the tail). Their feet must step, jump, climb, and bend in sync. They must move like a lion, which means turning and cocking its head, sitting up on its haunches, rolling over, and blinking its eyes (an extra task that involves pulling a chord inside the head). And it must all be synchonized to a drum beat.

It takes balance, coordination, and strength — both physical and mental.

Dancers pratice gravity-defying moves before donning their lion costume. —Kristi Palma / Boston.com staff

Heang Ly, 37, a youth organizer from Dorchester, is a “lifter.’’ That means the 4-foot-10 dancer, as the tail of the lion, is in charge of lifting her partner up onto her body to achieve one of the most dazzling moves of the dance — the allusion of a lion sitting up tall on its hind legs.

The move usually triggers gasps of awe and delight from the audience. What the crowd may not realize is the dancers are in awe themselves.

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Women Empowerment

At the end of the dance, the women reveal their faces.

“We hear audience members say in Chinese, ‘Oh wow! They are all women!’’’ said dancer Angela Pierce, a 39-year-old speech language pathologist from Stoughton.

That’s because the lion dance is traditionally done only by men.

“I wanted to start an Asian women’s lion dance troupe to make the point that women are just as capable as men,’’ said Tan.

These women, who are not dancers by trade, are performing moves called “Flying Kick,’’ “Double Decker,’’ and “Head Sit.’’ They are bankers, speech therapists, database developers, and students. They range in age from 13 to 60.

“It’s probably crossed every single one of our minds at some point: ‘Oh my God, I can’t do this,’’’ said Pierce. “And then we do it. It’s incredible.’’

“It’s something that I had never pictured myself doing,’’ said Ying Jiang, 27, of Newton, a coordinator of student training initiatives at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

Her boss recruited her, and she reluctantly showed up.

“I thought it was crazy and intimidating,’’ she said with a laugh.

But then she met the women, felt the energy of the group, and stayed. Jiang, who moved here from China two years ago, said the dance troupe has increased her strength: She can carry groceries further and has quadrupled the amount of push ups she can do.

But the benefits aren’t just physical.

“If we get a chance to challenge ourselves physically, and do things physically that other people don’t expect of us, and maybe we didn’t know we could do ourselves,’’ said Tan, “Then we get the opportunity to push limits, consciously and unconsciously, in every other part of our lives.’’

Lillian Chan and Heang Ly take a break during a dress rehearsal. —Kristi Palma / Boston.com staff
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“I love that I am connected with my Chinese culture,’’ said Pierce. “And there’s a sisterhood here that I can’t find anywhere else.’’

“We do a lot together,’’ said Jeanne Chin, 49, a database developer from Newton, who is one of the jumpers.

Chin, as a jumper, is hoisted into the air by the lifter while controlling the lion’s head. When she’s not performing, she’s meeting up with troupe mates for meals, bridal and baby showers, holiday parties, and more.

“It has a great sense of community,’’ said dancer Sau King Chan, 44, of Winchester, a vice president of Citizens Bank.

The Birth of Gund Kwok in Boston

Gund Kwok means heroine in Chinese. It’s a fitting name, considering Tan founded the troupe in 1998 to foster the empowerment of Asian women.

Tan, who grew up in Malaysia and moved to Boston in 1978, always loved martial arts.

“I wanted to learn martial arts as a young girl, but my mother would not let me do it, because I am a girl,’’ said Tan. “She thought it wasn’t feminine, that it wasn’t appropriate.’’

When she moved to the states, she signed up for martial arts classes but was discouraged by the male-dominated classes. Then she saw a lion dance up close.

“I looked at it and I thought, ‘Wow, this is something I can do,’’’ said Tan. “It’s martial arts-based, the way they move.’’

So she went to Hong Kong and bought two lion heads, a drum, and a cymbal. She joined forces with a former sifu (teacher) skilled in kung fu and lion dance to teach her. Then she recruited friends, who, in turn, recruited more friends. Today, her troupe has grown from 10 to 25 women, and her lion head collection has grown to more than 20 (she buys them when she travels overseas). Half of the troupe performs the lion dance and half performs the dragon dance, another traditional dance that involves at least seven people who bring a dragon costume to life.

Cheng Imm Tan (center) directs her dancers during practice. —Kristi Palma/Boston.com staff

Tan said her group has influenced the nation.

“In the past 17 years, we have seen other troupes use women for lion dances,’’ Tan said, which she said was practically unheard of back in 1998.

Why a Lion?

The lion dance is performed during the Lunar New Year to chase away evil and herald in prosperity, good luck, and peace. The dance dates back to the Han Dynasty (205 B.C. – 220 A.D.).

According to Tan, the legend goes like this: One day a monstrous creature appeared and preyed on the villagers and their crops. When a tiger could not slay it, the people turned to a lion for help.

The lion did a great job attacking the creature, making it run away. But before it left, the creature turned and screamed that it would be back. True to its word, a year later, the creature returned. But this time, the lion was too busy guarding the emperor’s gate to help the villagers out.

So the villagers came up with a plan. They quickly made a fake lion out of bamboo and cloth. The men crawled inside and made it prance and run and roar. The creature was fooled by the fake lion, ran away again, and never came back.

The lion comes to life during practice. —Kristi Palma/Boston.com staff

Therefore, during every Chinese New Year, lions dance to send away menace and evil for another year.

And this trail-blazing group of women dancers can look forward to another year of camaraderie and strength.

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