On nearly every Friday afternoon since last October, a group of Chinese-American students have gathered in the Herricks High School cafeteria to practice as Chinese lion dancers for this week’s Herricks Lunar New Year celebration.
The lion dance is an ancient Chinese ritual tied to Lunar New Year celebrations and other special occasions in Chinese tradition. The dancers perform intricate movements in large lion costumes with colorful animated paper mache and wood heads and long tails held with sticks, symbolically dispelling evil spirits and bringing good luck with them.
“It’s like bringing back our heritage,” said Herricks junior Derek Lee, captain of the eight-man lion dance crew sponsored by the school’s Asian-American Cultural Club. “It’s kind of cool because you can be creative.”
Lee will be manning a lion head and leading three other dancers at the Lunar New Year observance in the Herricks High School gymnasium this Saturday, March 2. Two groups of dancers will perform in two lion costumes in tandem to open the festivities on Saturday night.
The dancers improvise their movements, which traditionally are taken from Chinese martial arts. The dancer operating the lion’s head has the most challenging job because a dance lasts about 15 minutes and requires stamina to sustain the dance itself while also operating the mouth, opening and closing the eyes and moving the nose and ears of the lion.
“You have to have endurance. You need a lot of leg and upper body strength,” said Lee, whose father has also been a lion dancer and gave him his first lessons.
Lee was also a lead dancer last year in his first year as a member of the dance crew. The crews move in sudden darting motions to the beat of drums and gongs played by six instrumentalists, which include girls and boys.
“It’s good for us to know our own culture,” said Olivia Lin, co-president of the Herricks Asian American Club.
Asian American Club co-president Brenda Sze said the students also like the opportunity to bring elements of traditional Chinese culture to the society around them in a lunar new year celebration.
For the students’ instructor, Joseph Cheung, it’s a chance to help keep a part of Chinese tradition alive as a vital activity for the students.
“It’s nice to pass on the tradition,” Cheung said.
Kevin An, a Herricks junior who also will lead one of the four-man lion dance teams in his third year of dancing, said he’s eager to help open up this year’s new year observance.
The lions will be performing an awakening dance because the lion costumes, trimmed in bright red and yellow colors considered to be lucky, are new costumes this year.
An said he’s particularly looking forward to the young children who run up to the dancers as they perform to give them red envelopes containing money, believing it will bring them good luck.
“To the kids, it’s something magical, mystical,” An said.
He said he enjoys interacting with the kids and the opportunity to build friendships with his fellow performers.
“The group here is fun,” An said. “We all know each other and we talk to each other a lot.”
Herricks junior Linus Wong is a new member of the club, who is performing as a dancer for the first time. He said he knew about the club but just didn’t have time for it in his schedule until now.
“I finally get to do a little of martial arts,” he said.
Wong said he was hooked on eventually doing the lion dance from the first time he saw it performed when he was six or seven years old.
“I always wanted to do this. It’s great to have the opportunity to do it,” he said, adding the frequent practices have been crucial. “As I started getting the hang of it, it got easier.”
The lion dancers will be among dancers and musicians who will perform in the celebration of the year of the snake in Herricks High School at 100 Shelter Rock Road in New Hyde Park on March 2 from 7 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Chinese food and refreshments will also be served.