ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And I'm Audie Cornish. The lunar New Year kicks off today and this weekend, traditional lion and dragon dancers will parade down Chinatown Streets around the country. We go now to Boston where NPR's Hansi Lo Wang introduces us to one dance troop that's redefining the Lunar New Year tradition.
HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: A frustrated cry cuts short the count in Mandarin of a swinging jump rope and two exhausted dancers emerge from underneath a golden fur-rimmed lion's costume. It takes a whole lot of practice to perform in lion dance.
(SOUNDBITE OF RHYTHM)
WANG: Troops like these are the ones you've seen in Lunar New Year parades performing gymnastic feats papier-mâché lion's heads, and swaying cloth dragons aloft on poles, all to the pounding rhythms of cymbals and drums amidst a flurry of crimson firecrackers.
Reverend Cheng Imm Tan formed a troupe in Boston almost 16 years ago under the name Gund Kwok, Cantonese for heroine.
CHENG IMM TAN: I think everybody thought, Oh. What a cute idea. Let's give it a try. I don't know that anybody expected us to last this long.
WANG: So you're still turning heads.
TAN: We're still turning heads. People are like, Wow. They're women.
WANG: All women of Asian ancestry performing a Chinese martial art traditionally reserved for men.
TAN: That's absolutely correct.
WANG: Why is that?
TAN: Well, unfortunately, long ago, women in China used to be seen as not strong enough, not fit, not clean even. And so I decided that it's a new day and age, and we will model a different world. Let's so some hill kicks, OK? And make sure you have the huh all right? From your (foreign language spoken), from your stomach. Ready, hie, hie, hie.
WANG: It's crunch time for Gund Kwok's troupe members in the days leading up to Lunar New Year. More than two dozen women from their mid teens to their late 50s make up their ranks. Their weekly rehearsals are a combination of exercise class and acrobatic circus. Kind of bent halfway, crouching down.
JENNY GUAN: Yeah, yeah. So that's why my back, it's stiff.
WANG: Jenny Guan has performed with the lion dance troupe for about eight years, which would probably surprise most of her high school math students.
GUAN: They have no clue. They think we have no life.
WANG: Growing up in her southern Chinese village, Guan says she dreamed of putting on the lion costume. Now she's 42 and lives in Boston's northern suburbs, and her childhood wish comes true every Thursday night.
GUAN: My students don't know what I do on Thursdays. This is kind of a secret life.
WANG: A secret life that Guan says her father wasn't very supportive of at first. And her mother?
GUAN: She told me I'm crazy. And then I asked her, and I say, Well, mom, if you had the chance to do it, would you do it? Hello? (Speaking foreign language)
XIU QIONG GUAN: (Speaking foreign language)
WANG: Jenny Guan's mother, Xiu Qiong Guan, says if she had the chance to do the lion dance when she was younger, she would've absolutely done it. But back in China, she says, women were seen as less than. Now, as women living in America...
GUAN: (Speaking foreign language)
WANG: We do, she says, whatever we want.
GUAN: (Unintelligible) two, three, four.
WANG: What the Gund Kwok troupe really wants is to finally master their latest move. The move requires two members, one stands in front, the other crouches behind. Together, they have to keep to a beat and jump rope, in synch, under an eight-foot-long lion's costume. Reverend Cheng Imm Tan says there's a trick to performing the illusion of rollicking lions and menacing dragons: perseverance.
TAN: Together. Turn, turn, turn, beautiful. Woo-hoo.
WANG: Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News.
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