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Meet the Women Making Lion and Dragon Dancing More Inclusive

Their presence in a traditional male space redefines cultural, gender and age norms

spinner image Cheng Imm Tan demostrates a move to Gund Kwok dancers
Cheng Imm Tan, center right, leads members of Gund Kwok through a lion dance rehearsal in Boston in January 2023. Tan founded Gund Kwok, one of the longest-standing all-female AAPI dance troupes.
M. Scott Brauer

To prepare their bodies for the arduous workout ahead, participants lunge and lift dumbbells. The scene looks like a typical group exercise class until members slip on ornate costumes to embody sacred animals.

On a Wednesday night in Boston’s Chinatown, it’s lion dancing time. The dancers step in rhythm to the steady beat of a drum and use their bodies to mimic the animals’ head twists and eyelash bats.

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Gund Kwok, an Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) lion and dragon dance troupe, is deep in rehearsal mode for its next performance.

spinner image Cheng Imm Tan demonstrates how to perform a two-person lion dance.
Cheng Imm Tan, center right, demonstrates how to perform as the head in a two-person lion dance.
M. Scott Brauer

Lion dancing is an Asian traditional performance most often seen during Lunar New Year festivities. The art form requires strength, agility and artistry. Two dancers dressed in costume move in a series of choreographed contortions and lifts to channel a lion entranced by the drumbeats. Cheng Imm Tan, the troupe’s founder and teacher, presides over the dancers’ every step.

The troupe executes all the traditional moves of lion dancing with a notable difference — the members of Gund Kwok are all women. In a male-dominated space, women lion dancers are challenging cultural, gender and age biases.

“This is about physical, mental and emotional empowerment for women,” says Tan, 66, who choreographs, teaches and occasionally performs. “Because if you challenge yourself physically, you challenge yourself mentally and emotionally as well.”

Creating change

The origins of lion dancing are rooted in folklore. It is a cultural art form that dates back centuries in China. In one legend, a heroic lion scares away a monster and saves a village. In subsequent years, the villagers perform the ceremonial dance that continues to be practiced today throughout the world to ward off bad luck and welcome fortune and prosperity.

Lion dancing is a popular cultural performance for special occasions such as festivals and weddings. Because of its physically demanding techniques, it is often associated with kung fu and martial arts schools, which were predominantly male spaces.

Susan Yee, a “sifu,” or master, at the Yau Kung Moon Kung Fu Institute in San Francisco, did not get the memo. She’s been performing and teaching lion dancing for 40 years. When no one in the space looked like her, she created her own all-women’s troupe.

“It was a male thing,” says Yee, 62, about the early days of lion dancing. In 1993, Yee formed the first all-female U.S. lion dance troupe, which placed third in a national lion dance competition.

spinner image Gund Kwok practicing before a Lunar New Year performance in 2023
Members of Gund Kwok practice before Lunar New Year and spring festival performances in January 2023.
M. Scott Brauer

When lion dance troupes became more inclusive, women were still only allowed to play the cymbals or gongs because of cultural taboos, Tan says. Many different Asian cultures believe that menstrual blood brings bad luck. This belief unofficially barred women from even touching the lion costume.

“It was part of the tradition,” Tan says. Because of period stigma, “women don’t touch the head [of the lion].”

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But in 1998, while watching a lion dance performance, she thought, I can do that, too. Tan persuaded 10 of her AAPI female friends to create a troupe. At first, audiences were unimpressed by Gund Kwok’s novel presence, she says.

“They were shocked because we were doing actually harder moves than the guys were doing,” Tan says with a chuckle.

Gund Kwok, which means “heroine” in Cantonese, is one of the longest-standing all-female AAPI lion dance troupes. More female lion dancers are finding success and space in mixed-gender troupes, but an all-female troupe with staying power is still rare.

Goodbye, age restrictions

The lion dance, with its colorful costume, can easily be misidentified as a dragon. Here’s how to tell the difference: The lion dance is always composed of two people locked in dynamic choreography. The dragon is long and sinuous with a crew of nine or more dancers.

“You dance like the lion, so you think that you are strong. You have power.”

— Aiping Schneider

Gund Kwok members range in age from 12 to 66. Some female lion dancers not only shatter gender stereotypes but also defy age norms by participating in an activity whose performers are generally younger. This activity demands that performers lift a lion mask (estimated to weigh more than 5 pounds) and perform “horse stance,” a deep and wide squat used in martial arts, throughout the performance.

“Put your arms up 45 degrees and see how long you can hold it up without any weights,” Tan says. “You will find just holding up your arms in horse stance is a workout.”

These days, Yee prefers teaching but occasionally hops into costume to dance with her troupe.

“I guess it’s the passion,” Yee says. “I really love it.”

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spinner image Gund Kwok dancers practice the dragon dance in January 2023
Gund Kwok members rehearse the dragon dance in January 2023.
M. Scott Brauer

Lion dancing transforms women’s lives by building physical strength, mental resilience and self-esteem.

Gund Kwok’s mission is to empower women, Tan says. To keep herself strong, she does daily push-ups and walks up 22 stories to her office five times.

Every time Aiping Schneider performs, she feels empowered.

“You dance like the lion, so you think that you are strong,” says Schneider, 59. “You have a power.”

In 2018, she started lion dancing with Gund Kwok to connect to the local AAPI community and her culture. Since then, the strength and confidence she gained through the discipline have inspired her to work toward many different goals. Last year, she completed her first 5K, 10K and half marathon races.

“Lion dance really inspired me to do a lot more things that I never thought,” Schneider says. In her native China and in Boston, where she lives, she has always heard messages of what women shouldn’t do — lion dancing was one of them.

“But with proper training and enough exercise, I can do it,” Schneider says.

Women’s radical presence in lion dancing challenges internalized oppression.

“Some people say, ‘Oh, you’re not strong enough to do this. You’re not smart to do that,’ ” Schneider says. “If you really want to do it, you put your heart into it. Yeah, you can do it.”

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