Where to start with the Lion Dance? First, the dance you normally see with two people underneath is a lion, not a dragon. Dragon dances also exist, but those have six to eight people manipulating the dragon; just remember, the fluffy giant puppets you normally see during celebrations are lions.
This year, the Chinese New Year (also known as Lunar New Year, or Tet) falls on January 28. It is celebrated by many Asian-American and Asian communities all around the world and is one of those communities’ and nations’ largest holidays. The Lion Dance is a main feature of those festivities.
Heart of a lion
The Lion Dance has its base in the folk traditions of warding off evil and ushering in the new year, but it also has a solid foundation in many kung fu films, especially the Once Upon a Time in China epics (starring Chinese actor and martial artist Jet Li). Every New Year’s Eve in Chinatown, many different Lion Dance groups represent their heritage. The Lion Dance is accompanied by a drumbeat and cymbals, which act as the heartbeat of the lion, and each sequence of the drum informs the Lion Dancers of their next movements. Conversely, if the dancers make a sudden change, the drum will follow the lion's movement.
I am an Asian American who Lion Dances, and sometimes I feel it’s a very clichéd thing to do. Still, we all should connect to our roots somehow, and Lion Dance is my passion. While we were growing up, my cousin brought home bamboo lion-head frames and I watched him transform them, with thin layers of papier-mâché, into fierce or cute lion heads.
Watching martial arts films also spurred me to learn more about Lion Dance. One of the nicest aspects of the dance is that it often represents pride for your school or association, especially if you are away from home. Although the drumbeats and moves vary from region to region and school to school, some basic rules apply: The Lion Dance always starts with three bows to show respect and ends with three bows when it gets home. The lion always eats, normally a green "lettuce", because in Chinese, the word for lettuce sounds like “to grow money.” The lion then spits the greens back out to the crowd to spread the wealth around.
The more you know
As a Lion Dancer who performs during the Chinese New Year celebrations in Philadelphia’s Chinatown, there are a few things I expect.
1) It’s going to be cold; it might even have snowed the night before, so I layer up.
2) There will be firecrackers to ward off evil and scare away demons. The lion has to act like it's curious on top of the firecracker when it’s ignited, so I am prepared to get hit sometimes.
3) It’s going to be loud (you know, firecrackers), so I bring earplugs.
4) Children like watching and petting the lion, so I have to remember to play with them.
As a spectator, though, you should just come out and celebrate with us. You can come out on January 27, 2017, at 11pm to watch all the different troupes ring in the new year at midnight, or come on January 29 from 11am to 4pm for the Chinatown parade, performed by the Philadelphia Suns organization, complete with kung fu demonstrations. If you do come out, say hello; I will mostly likely be under the pink lion.
Gung hay fat choy! (Congratulations on good fortunes -- or, happy new year!)