From traditional dance ensembles to step teams and ritual celebrations, on-campus cultural organizations at colleges and universities have long offered students who come from a shared heritage the opportunity to reinforce their identity and traditions. The Penn Lions, an award-winning lion dance troupe at the University of Pennsylvania, are one such group.
Dating back over two thousand years, lion dance is an extension of Chinese martial arts, and one of China’s most important traditions. Now associated with Lunar New Year celebrations, the dance spreads joy and prosperity. It also appears at auspicious social events like restaurant openings and weddings, where it is thought to chase away evil spirits and summon good fortune. Supposedly possessing mystical properties, everything about the lion’s presence is symbolic. The costume’s five colors—yellow, black, green, red, and white—represent the five cardinal directions (east, west, north, south, and center) important in Chinese aesthetics. The lion walks in a zigzag path to confuse evil spirits, which the Chinese believe move in straight lines. Lion dance choreography often tells a story involving an act of overcoming puzzles and obstacles before obtaining a meaningful object—like cabbage and scrolls. The culmination of many performances is the picking of the greens, or cai qing, a homonym for spreading good fortune.
The lion is enacted by two dancers. One handles the head; the other plays the body and tail. Together, they demonstrate energetic movements combined with strong kung fu stances to bring the lions to life. The head dancer moves the lion’s facial features to express moods. A “laughing” Buddha figure is also important. A representation of the temple monk who, according to some versions of the tradition’s origin, trained the lions and started the dance, the masked Buddha teases and leads the lion with a fan. The lion is accompanied by musicians, who play a large drum, cymbals, and a gong. The music follows the moves of the lion and symbolizes its roar.
The Penn Lions were established during Lunar New Year in 2007, when one of the founding members, Henry Chow, realized that this integral tradition was absent from a campus with a large Asian population. That fall, Henry met Winston Ma, who with 10 years lion dance experience became the troupe’s artistic director. The Penn Lions practice the Hok San style. Originating in Guangdong province in southern China, this style is associated with the mythical monster Nian. Each new year, Nian came down from the mountains and terrorized a nearby village; scared of loud noises, fire, and the color red, the monster was chased off by villagers after they fashioned a costume accompanied by firecrackers and loud banging on pots. The Hok San style emphasizes cat-like movements and difficult tricks called stacks.
In the spring of 2010, the Penn Lions won the Ivy League Championship at the East Coast Intercollegiate Lion Dance Competition. In 2012, they organized the Second Annual East Coast Intercollegiate Lion Dance Competition and hosted seven different troupes. Since then, the Penn Lions have won the 2013 and 2016 East Coast Intercollegiate Lion Dance titles and hosted the 2014 and 2017 competitions. They perform regularly on campus and throughout Philadelphia, especially during Lunar New Year. Just over 10 years after their founding, the Penn Lions have nurtured dozens of lion dancers in this ancient Chinese tradition and held over 200 performances.