A Club Where Lions Dance and Traditions Take Root
The first thing you notice in the stairwell to the fourth-floor studio on Canal Street in Manhattan is the measured thumping coming from behind a metal door.
Just beyond the entrance, large papier-mâché lion masks were twisting and turning to the drumbeat. On a recent Friday evening, the teenagers made their way across the studio floor — sagging from decades of jumps and lunges — as they practiced Chinese lion dancing.
“You want to play in a circle,” Victor Fong, 24, told his students at the New York Chinese Freemasons Athletic Club. “Take it slow and do it again.”
“你们要舞成一个圈子，”24岁的维克多·方(Victor Fong)告诉纽约洪青体育会(NY Chinese Freemasons Athletic Club)的学员。“慢慢舞，再做一次。”
The dance troupe, made up of 60 members, performs throughout the year but was now preparing for its biggest events, Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations, which will begin on Saturday and conclude on Feb. 15. Teenagers comprise about half of the group, many of whom began lion dancing at 14.
About 100 current and past members of the troupe — which has been performing since 1956 — will be among the 220 groups marching through Chinatown in Manhattan for the 18th Lunar New Year Parade on Feb. 5.
Mr. Fong has been involved in the organization since he was 15 and began teaching lion dancing three years ago. But the club also acts as a recreation center and safe haven for teenagers, with video games readily available. As many as 20 students show up after school.
“The basic requirement for hanging out here is you have to learn how to lion dance,” Mr. Fong said. While that is not a formal requirement for being a member, everyone finds a way to participate in the Lunar New Year Parade, whether it’s by dancing, carrying a flag or beating a drum.
Alvin Chau, 26, is an environmental consultant by day and a lion dancer on weekends. He has been a club member for 10 years and joined because of an interest in lion dance.
“Everyone is a big family,” he said, shaking hands with other members as they walked through the door. “You know everyone.”
It is believed that the lion dance began in the third century.
Stories vary about how lion dancing came to be, but most of them include a monster named Nian who would terrorize a village. The villagers finally banded together and scared the beast away with firecrackers and drums. While lions are not native to China, some versions of the story include the villagers creating a monster of their own in the shape of a lion to fight off the beast.
Today, the dancers travel across Chinatown going from business to business to bring good luck for the coming year.
The new year — 4714 according to the Chinese lunar calendar — will begin on Saturday and marks the Year of the Rooster, which is thought to be a symbol of positivity.
“It’s almost like the dark night is ending and the sun is coming up,” said Ya Yung Teng, the digital collections coordinator for the Museum of Chinese in America. “It’s hopeful that we’re going to have a new day.”
Roosters and chickens are not particularly strong creatures, Ms. Teng said, but they are numerous.
“In a way,” she said, the rooster “stands for ‘We the People.’”
The lion head and adjoining tail are operated by two people, and their dance is weighted heavily in martial arts. As one person masters the head, a second follows under a train of fabric representing the body. The dancers move in unison as they mimic the animal’s approach to a carcass, the slyness of the walk and the aggressiveness of an attack.
A lion head figure weighs under 10 pounds and sits squarely on the dancer’s shoulders. Inside, the dancer manipulates strings that wink the head’s eyelids, shake its ears and open its mouth to reveal a fire-orange tongue.
“A good lion dancer will simulate a living creature,” said Karlin Chan, 59, who heads the athletic club’s community outreach.
“I started lion dancing when I was a kid,” he said. “Chinatown was much smaller then and it was a celebration with fireworks and firecrackers, which added a lot of flavor and meaning to it.”
The dance itself has also evolved.
“In the old days it was a way to show your martial-arts school’s proficiency and how good you were,” Mr. Chan said. “Now it’s evolved into more of a dance.”
Mr. Chan buys a new lion head each year when he travels to China. A head costs about $1,500.
“If you want the good stuff, the quality, you have to see it for yourself,” Mr. Chan said. “I’ll inspect the product before we put it in the crate and send it over.”
Mr. Chan, who has been involved with the club for nearly 50 years, said that passing the dance from one generation to the next was vital.
“You need to pass on the traditions and the culture, and this is a part of our culture,” he said. “It’s a great way to promote cultural understanding and cultural exchange; we welcome that.”
For Sara Pore, 17, another club member, lion dance is more than just tradition; it provides a creative outlet.
“Lion dancing started 2,000 years ago — that’s incredible,” she said. “But what makes you a competent lion dancer is that there is a sense of imagination involved. Lion dancing teaches competence in leadership because of this. You’re constantly forced to push yourself past your limit.”
Back at rehearsal, Justin Le, 18, tied a red sash around his waist to practice jumping. The dancers use the sashes to pull themselves up over their partners’ heads. The room’s ceilings are too low to wear the lion heads for jumping practice, so once up on his partner’s head, Mr. Le held out his arms as if in offering.
Mr. Le comes by the dance as a legacy.
“I was born into it,” Mr. Le said, noting that his uncle and father were club members. “Growing up, I would always watch my family and see the lion dance, and I slowly grew interested in it.”
By 14, he was fully enrolled in the athletic club’s lion dance troupe.
“I value my culture and tradition, being Chinese or Asian-American. I have a lot of pride in that,” he said. “I want to contribute and give back to the community.”