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Celebrations, acrobatics, and chasing 'nian': Lion dancers prepare for Lunar New Year

For the New York United Lion and Dragon Dance Troupe, the Year of the Monkey will be the first time women will perform the lion dance.
Traditional lion dance performers participate in an event ahead of Lunar New Year celebrations in Putrajaya on January 28, 2016. MOHD RASFAN / AFP - Getty Images

Emily Zheng and Tegan Gallina took two bunny hops forward in unison, then Gallina launched herself onto the table. Holding her partner’s waist from behind as if in a Conga line, Zheng attempted to do the same, putting her left foot up first, then swinging her right leg over.

They were standard moves for the two college students, who were practicing their Cantonese-style Lion Dance on a January afternoon at a park near the Manhattan Bridge.

But this time something went awry.

Zheng, 20, nearly slid off the table, which was slippery from being freshly painted. That her shoes were wet from standing on a damp artificial turf made damper by the winter’s first snow also didn’t help.

But there’s no whining, no complaining, no excuses permitted for the 20 some-odd active members of the New York United Lion and Dragon Dance Troupe, founded in 2001. Come rain or snow, in the heat or in the cold, they hit the turf at the Sara D. Roosevelt Park in Manhattan's Chinatown every Sunday for three hours, preparing for weddings, ceremonies, parties, and parades where they perform to summon good fortune and drive away evil spirits.

“It’s exhilarating, just jumping back and forth,” Laura Feng, a 15-year-old high school student who alternates with Zheng as the lion’s tail, told NBC News. “I know that sounds kind of lame at first, but it’s also like a community, and then you build upon it. It’s a team.”

Image: New York United Lion and Dragon Dance Troupe Laura Feng, Tegan Gallina, Emily Zheng
From left to right, Laura Feng, Tegan Gallina and Emily Zheng. In 2016, it’ll be the first time women get to perform the lion dance.Yijun He / NBC News

Lunar New Year, which this year begins on Feb. 8, is the troupe’s headliner. Besides being chosen to perform for "Madison Street to Madison Avenue," an event on Feb. 6 that brings Lunar New Year celebrations to Midtown and the Upper East Side, the New York United Lion and Dragon Dance Troupe will also participate in “Super Saturday,” a Manhattan Chinatown tradition dating back to the 1960s in which lion dance groups perform for local businesses. This year’s will be held on Feb. 13, a day before Chinatown’s Lunar New Year parade, one of the biggest in the country.

You have to be synchronized and be strong.

For the New York United Lion and Dragon Dance Troupe, the Year of the Monkey is also special for another reason: it'll be the first time in the troupe that an all-woman team will perform the lion dance.

“Being the first all-girls full team, we can compete like a lot of the guy teams do,” Gallina, 18, told NBC News. “We can be in a lot of the shows that just wasn’t possible before.”

Among the three women, Zheng has been with the troupe the longest, a total of two years. Before earning a spot as the lion’s tail, Zheng was part of the musical ensemble, which sets the rhythm and tempo of the lion’s moves. Being involved in the lion dance tradition, whose history stretches back at least 1,500 years, is an important part of Zheng’s life.

“Every single time we perform, the audience will always look forward to it,” said Zheng, who studies at the City College of New York.

Image: New York City's Chinatown Celebrates Lunar New Year
Onlookers shoot confetti into the air during the 12th Annual Chinatown Lunar New Year Parade on February 06, 2011 in New York City. The year of the rabbit began on February 3. Michael Nagle / Getty Images

For Feng and for Gallina — whose father is of Irish and Italian descent, and whose mother is a mix of Cambodian, Vietnamese and Chinese — joining the troupe has helped them reconnect with their cultural roots.

“Especially since I’m a third-generation Chinese person, it’s kind of difficult sometimes to identify with just a lot of the Chinese culture,” said Feng, whose older brother, also a troupe member, encouraged her and Gallina to join. “But my mother has always told me it’s important to remember your heritage, and things like that, so this brings me back just to remind myself of who I am really.”

Every lion dance is different, with costumes and choreography varying according to region and East Asian country. In southern China, the place where the New York United Lion and Dragon Dance Troupe derives its dance, the colorful lion’s head features a single horn along with eyes that blink, ears that flap, and a mouth that opens.

Every single time we perform, the audience will always look forward to it.

According to one legend, the lion’s movements, along with the cacophony of cymbals, gongs, and drums, were said to scare away a mythical beast called “Nian,” which would emerge annually around the Lunar New Year and attack villagers, especially children. That legend forms the backdrop of many Chinatown lion dance routines seen today.

For the New York United Lion and Dragon Dance Troupe, performances weave together artful footwork and acrobatics. Depending on the venue, the tail and head together might have to launch onto tables of varying heights and leap onto a drum turned upside down, gingerly negotiating a 360-degree rotation around the edge like a ballerina. The head needs the agility to jump backwards onto the knees of the tail, even when standing fixed on the edge of the drum. The tail, by contrast, requires the strength to catch the head and prop up the performer.

When executed properly, the result is a playful — if not ferocious-looking — lion aloft on its hind legs.

“There’s a lot of trust in that because if she falls, we all fall off the drum,” Feng explained.

Image: New York United Lion and Dragon Dance Troupe - musical instruments
Young members from the New York United Lion and Dragon Dance Troupe play instruments accompanying the lion dancing performance on Jan. 17, 2016 in Manhattan Chinatown.Yijun He / NBC News

For Super Saturday, there won’t be the added pressure of tables or drums. But performing a lion dance wearing a bulky costume with poor visibility is a challenge in its own right. At the January practice attended by NBC News, Zheng and Gallina were still learning the ins-and-outs of a new routine while their coach, Ricky Mun, looked on. He would interrupt only occasionally to correct a move here or give pointers.

Mun, who was born in Malaysia, grew up surrounded by lion dancing. Troupes would frequently perform near his home, and at the age of 18 he decided he would join one. Speaking in Mandarin, Mun told NBC News he developed his repertoire of moves by observing others.

“We would see which parts were good and then study them,” he said. “Then we would come back and change them.”

Image: New Year 2016 celebrations by Chinese in Amsterdam
Chinese inhabitants of Amsterdam celebrate the Western New Year with a traditional lion dance in the center of the Chinese area in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 02 January 2016. REMKO DE WAAL / EPA

Ricky Chen, 21, and David Yuan, 20, are among the troupe’s most seasoned members whose performances reflect Mun’s 36 years of lion dance experience. It was around 1 p.m. when the drum thumped, the cymbals and gong clanged, and the pair began its first dry run without the lion costume.

Mun, his elbows bent, his hands stuffed in his jacket pocket, stood off to the side observing quietly. A small crowd of Chinatown locals, some with small children, had gathered to watch, their eyes transfixed on the lion as it flitted about on the turf.

Around midway through, Mun moved in for a closer inspection when Yuan, his feet planted on both edges of the drum on the tabletop, launched himself onto Chen’s head. Chen, who was the lion’s tail, then carried Yuan across two tables, stepping down for the first and up for the second. Holding Yuan by his waist, Chen lowered his partner, dangling him head-first over the table before reeling him back in.

Just knowing that we can bring [joy] to this parade is spectacular.

It was back-breaking work, and the pair still had a second in-costume practice awaiting them.

“You have to be synchronized and be strong,” Chen said.

After Chen and Yuan completed their second rehearsal, it was Gallina and Zheng’s turn. A light snow had already begun to fall, and the winds were starting to pick up. Since Gallina and Zheng were still familiarizing themselves with their routine, the two would practice without a lion costume.

The music began.

Gallina and Zheng carried out many of the same movements as earlier, at times having to balance themselves on the drum and jump together onto the table. Mun, meanwhile, wore a bamboo-skeleton of a lion’s head, demonstrating each tilt, twist and turn alongside Gallina.

Image: New York United Lion and Dragon Dance Troupe practices
Members of New York United Lion and Dragon Dance Troupe practice their stunts at the Sara D. Roosevelt Park in Manhattan's Chinatown on Jan. 17, 2016.Yijun He / NBC News

Their performance, this time around, went off without a hitch. There was no slipping or sliding, no mishaps or mistakes, though the newness of the routine caused some tentativeness when executing a few of the more precarious moves.

“It could improve but we haven’t had it for very long, especially compared to some of the other performers,” Gallina said. “It’s our first one.”

Mun, who tends not to say a lot during rehearsals, agreed. “There’s still room for improvement, but it was about 80 percent,” he said.

As Super Saturday approaches, Gallina, Zheng, and Feng continue to practice and perform, though their three-hour session on Jan. 24 was cancelled because of a blizzard that buried New York City in more than two feet of snow. And while the women can’t help but be a little nervous, any anxiety they feel is tempered by the excitement of being part of this year’s Lunar New Year celebration as the troupe’s first all-female team.

“I never grew up watching it, but every time we perform there is this kind of joy from the audience,” said Gallina, who spent her early childhood in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “Just knowing that we can bring the same kind of thing to this parade is spectacular.”

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Clarification: An earlier version of this article suggested that this year will be the first year an all-woman lion dance team will perform in Chinatown's Lunar New Year parade. It will be the first year an all-woman team from the New York United Lion and Dragon Dance Troupe will perform.