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Lion Dance: My Experiences at Philly's Chinese New Year

Lion dancers celebrating Chinese New Year

Lion Dance: My Experiences at Philly's Chinese New Year

For the first time, I was actually awake and able to make it to the Chinese New Year in Philadelphia’s Chinatown, following a few prior unsuccessful attempts in years past to keep my eyelids open for the celebration. It is, by far, one of the most unique experiences I have ever had.

Chinatown is much like a hotspot or mini-home that maintained some of the homeland’s culture. It is its own small city with lots to see. The weather was colder than it should have been for a night of fun and festivities, but everyone there had a great time.

Among the fireworks, smiles and good luck money, Chinese culture has the most beautifully strange performance to welcome the New Year -- The Lion Dance. I found myself hiding behind my camera and entering the battlefield. The firecrackers popping, flying and producing smoke made me feel like I was losing a war. At times, my eyes teared and I saw colorful blurs dancing in the night. Even still, I snapped away with no idea of what I had actually taken a picture of!

There were large and colorful lion heads pulling behind them equally amazing bodies. Their eyes were as big as grapefruits and the colors were even richer than Photoshop could ever produce. There were pink lions, yellow lions, red lions and a few other colors that did not dance this year. The eyelashes were thick maroon manes that traced not only the eyelids but the eyebrows and finer features of the lion. Horns hung above the eyes, but something about the mouth of the beast made the face seem more playful than scary. The craft of the designs are too complicated for explanation.  It was much like a microscope. The closer I looked, the more I noticed differences where different fabrics touched.  Soft and wild became flat and controlled.

It was a delight to see the craftsmanship, but to see the dance was quite interesting as well. The costume operates much like a horse costume for a child’s birthday party; the Lion Dance is a two-man job. One man carries the head, and the other person wags a tail. The person carrying the head has to blink the eyes and open and close the mouth, all while behaving the way a living creature would.

This is a cultural event and I should mention its purpose. There are some debatable issues with its origin since there are many traditions. Nonetheless, the Lion Dance is a prayer for good luck in the New Year. This is an important point.  The ceremony seems a bit less random once you realize that the lions are part of the culture and myth to bring good luck. Similar to the stories of people making offerings to the gods in Ancient Greece and Egypt, the Chinese tradition makes an offering to the lions.   As part of this tradition, the storefronts and associations in Chinatown hang ‘food’ and firecrackers from their upper-story windows so that the lions can visit to eat and stay to dance.

The Lion Dance is a ceremonial request for good luck. It is open for everyone to enjoy and will continue for many years to come. Happy Chinese New Year!