Boston Bylanes

Exploring Boston's hidden sights and sounds

Real Life Heroines

Posted by Yoshita Singh on September 29, 2010

Kalena Chan is trying hard to maintain her balance. Her posture has to be perfect – just the right bend of the knees, arms held in the correct upright position over her head. After all, she does not want Lillian Cheng, who is precariously sitting on top of her head, to fall down. But Chan is not able to hold on long enough. She loses her balance. Cheng tumbles. They try again. This time Cheng doesn’t jump high enough for Chan to lift her and position her on her head. Another try. With her back facing Chan, Cheng jumps high enough to first land her feet on Chan’s thighs. Chan holds her by the waist and throws her up – just enough for Cheng to set herself gently on top of Chan’s head. On their sixth attempt at practicing an 8-second lion dance step, the women nail it.

It sure gets frustrating – all the falling and slipping. But Chan, Cheng and the other 20 women in their group ‘Gund Kwok’ don’t give up. They believe they can overcome any obstacle. Their 52-year old troupe leader Cheng Imm Tan ensures their minds are tuned thus. Tan is the founder of Gund Kwok, a lion and dragon dance troupe based in Boston. Gund Kwok’s loose Chinese translation is ‘heroine’ — an appropriate name for the group given that it is the only all-women lion and dragon dance troupe in the US.

The dances are centuries-old Chinese art forms performed on special occasions like Chinese New Year and weddings to bring in prosperity and peace. They are martial arts-based dances and require extreme discipline of mind and body, endurance, flexibility and agility. Reason why traditionally they were performed by men only. But Tan is not one to conform to tradition — growing up in Malaysia, she found martial arts “inspirational” and “loved sports,” hardly the demure girl her parents wanted her to be. A Harvard Divinity School graduate, Tan once saw a lion dance performance up close. And she saw no reason why women couldn’t perform the dance as skillfully as men did.

Tan, an ordained Unitarian Universalist, started Gund Kwok in 1998 with 10 friends. “Our mission is to empower women, particularly Asian women, to break down stereotypes and push their boundaries,” she says. Gund Kwok is a platform where women can “learn and perform an art form that was traditionally denied to them because they were seen not as strong enough as men.” The dance intends to dare women to go one step further. “To be able to push yourself physically, you have to push yourself mentally and emotionally,” says the mother of one. “I tell my troupe you can do anything if you try. It’s all about challenging your own mental and emotional blocks,” says Tan as she supervises a lion dance practice session in the lower level of China Trade Center in Boston’s Chinatown.

The next couple of weeks are busy for the troupe. A wedding they have to perform at is in a few days. August 15 is another big day in Gund Kwok’s calendar. It’s the August Moon Festival, the second most important day in Chinese tradition after Chinese New Year. Gund Kwok has a performance lined up for the festivities scheduled in Chinatown. The other 8-9 dragon and lion dance troupes in Boston will also be performing that day. These have men. “This is the time for us to show off our talent, especially to the men in the other troupes. We have to put up our best show,” Tan says. It’s not for nothing that the troupe’s motto is “a heroine will not admit defeat to the hero.”

The performances are mostly 8-10 minutes long but it takes years to perfect the dance moves. Which is why Tan and her troupe take their weekly practice sessions very seriously. Every Monday and Thursday evenings, the women assemble at the trade center’s vacant lower level for 3 hours of practice. They first begin with a 45-minute warm up session. It’s difficult to gauge the level of exercise a slim and petite 5’5” Tan can make her troupe do. When she starts, there’s no stopping her – push-ups, aerobics, martial arts, lunges, crunches, jogging, splits. The women – hair tied up in ponytails, dressed in black kung fu pants, red T-shirts with a belt tied on their waists to “hold their energy in” – follow her lead. And these 30-45 year old mothers and working women kick, run, roll and stretch like there’s no tomorrow.

One soon sees why the troupe follows such a vigorous exercise regimen. Lion dance is all about stamina and physical agility. It is enacted by two dancers. One is under a giant and embellished lion head made of fur, paper-mache and bamboo. A long sequined, colorful cloth is attached to the head and serves as the lion’s body and tail. The second dancer is under this cloth, all the while stooping and holding her partner by the waist to form ‘one lion.’ Dancers have to move with clockwork precision as they lift each other, roll on the floor, prance on benches and kick to enact a lion’s movements.

The Gund Kwok women first practice the dance moves without the lion head and tail. All they seem to be doing is jumping, kicking and moving their arms. It’s not until they put on the yellow lion costume that their movements make sense. When the women are crouching, the lion sits, when one dancer is lifting the other over her head, the lion stands. The dancer holding the lion’s head tugs at the numerous strings inside it to make the animal’s eyes blink, jaws move and ears flutter. Tan takes immense pride in “how alive our lion looks.”

“The beauty of lion and dragon dance is that every member of the troupe plays an equally important role. There has to be perfect synchronization. One wrong move by anyone and the dance is ruined,” says Cynthia Chang, 31, who’s been part of the dragon troupe for 3 years. The dragon dance is performed by at least 9 people, she explains. The dragon’s head and body, made of fabric and bamboo, is mounted on long poles. Dancers swing these poles in a sinuous and continuous manner to depict the dragon’s movement. The length of a dragon varies from 35 meters to 70 meters. There can be as many as 50 dancers. “It’s all about teamwork. If the head of the dragon moves perfectly but the person in the middle doesn’t hold the pole properly, the dance is spoiled,” Chang points out.

Ask Chang how her experience has been so far and she describes it in one word – “fabulous.”  “Gund Kwok has helped me keep part of my culture and ethnicity alive and share it with others,” she says. The sense of camaraderie one develops transcends practice sessions and performances. “We help each other out, whether it’s learning a dance move or handling problems at home or work.”

The women particularly look out for each other when there are injuries. Sprained fingers, twisted ankles, injured knees are all in a day’s work, says a nonchalant Kalena Chan, 41. “None of us are gymnasts. We help each other learn the moves,” Chan, a physical therapist, adds. “We figure out ways to minimize our injuries.” While the dancers practice, six women rehearse the accompanying music piece on drums and cymbals.

Gund Kwok recruits new members through 10-week trial classes held once a year. “We are very committed to our mission of women empowerment. It’s important that those who join us believe in this mission too,” says Tan. Members pay 150 dollars to join the troupe and then 100 dollars yearly. The group has a “stable clientele” in the Peabody Essex Museum and some colleges. They have had 18 performances so far this year – a good score since they average about 24 performances a year. Expenses are incurred mainly on maintaining the delicate equipment and paying rent for their store room at the trade center. The room looks like a page out of a child’s fairytale book – couple of pink dragons, 20 large lion heads, red and orange fish, colorful masks and costumes. All the equipment, including the drums and cymbals, was shipped from China, Singapore and Malaysia. Tan’s husband Ken is the group’s carpenter and fixes “a dragon’s popping eye or a lion’s hanging ears.”

One thing that does worry Tan is “there aren’t enough coaches.” All her time goes into teaching her troupe, time she wishes she could use to develop new techniques and improve choreography. “If women come to me with their skills developed, I can work on choreographing innovative moves,” says the self-confessed perfectionist. Since she is the group’s sole coach, Tan doesn’t participate in the dance as much as she would like to. “I feel the itch to go under the lion’s head and do all sorts of tricks,” her eyes wide with excitement. She hasn’t performed publicly for more than five years.

Gund Kwok may be a place to empower women but it’s also a place where they build camaraderie and “have a lot of laughs together.” Tan can’t stop laughing as she recalls that years ago, during a practice session she tripped while trying to stand on her partner’s thighs. As she slipped “the other girl’s pants came down,” Tan throws her head back in laughter.

It’s been 12 years since Gund Kwok was started and Tan has no plan of slowing down. Her dream is to continue till she is 80 years old. “That’ll be fun. We’ll defy age, show people what older women can do.” That’s Tan at her tradition-defying best again. The troupe also began training children a couple of years ago. Known as the ‘Gund Kwok Cubs,’ the group comprises 7-12 year old boys and girls and performs twice a year. One of their performances is around the Chinese New Year for adopted Chinese children. “Many of the Cubs children are adoptees themselves. They are a source of inspiration to the nearly 1000 children who watch the show,” Tan says.

Towards the end of the practice session, Tan wants to see a full rehearsal of the troupe’s August Moon Festival performance. Six women, with cymbals in their hands, stand next to Tan who begins to play the drum. Their eyes are fixed on Tan’s hands as they match the fast-changing drum beats with their clanging cymbals. Three passersby stop to watch as they hear the music. Two lions come face to face – they crouch, jump and roll. One of dancers trips over the lion’s tail but continues to perform. Tan wants a re-run. The drums roll again, cymbals clang. This time, the lions dance impeccably. The wide-eyed passersby break into a spontaneous applause.

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