Monday was the first official day of the Chinese New Year of the Monkey. But the real celebration in Western New York took place the day before, when hundreds of people of Chinese descent or who have an interest in Chinese culture came to watch the annual Chinese New Year performance at the Center for the Arts at the University at Buffalo.
The performance was filled with performers of all ages. There were more than 20 acts this year, ranging from little dancing toddlers to graceful fan-swaying adult dancers, as well as songs, martial arts and everything in between.
There was one teenage dance group that had two acts, one an edgy and modern K-pop dance, and the other a traditional Miao dance.
There are approximately 56 ethnic groups in China, with Han being the largest and “stereotypical” Chinese ethnicity. But there are 55 other smaller and less-recognized groups in China, called minority groups. Miao is one of the largest minority groups at 9.4 million people. They have their own languages, attire, and of course, their own dances.
“It’s great to show off the different types of dances and ethnicities we have in China. We have a cool culture,” said Connie Liu, who taught and choreographed both of the teen group’s dances. Liu has been dancing for Chinese New Year and related events since she was 10 years old.
Michelle Zhang, a freshman at Williamsville North High School, agreed with Connie.
“It makes me feel happy that I’m showing a new side to Chinese culture,” she said, as she touched the streak of red paint on her right cheek, a Miao tradition. It makes the performers get into character for the dance.
The dancers have different ideas about their favorite aspects of Chinese dance.
“It gives me a rush, a thrill, and it’s so much fun,” said Michelle Qiu, a junior at Williamsville East High School. “The dance and costumes are the best part, though. Without the dance, there wouldn’t be these costumes, and without the costumes, there wouldn’t be this dance,” she said.
“For me, no doubt, being with friends, taking ridiculous pictures together, and having an awesome dance teacher are my favorite things about dancing, in both traditional and hip-hop,” said Carolyn Wang, a freshman at Clarence High School, as she played with the bangles on her arms.
Connie An, a sophomore at Williamsville East High School, said, “I like the costumes, makeup and hanging out with friends; it’s all good. There’s nothing I don’t like about it.”
There are many challenges involved in preparing the dances.
“The hardest challenge is picking a dance that fits everyone; something that’s not too easy or hard, but can showcase every dancer’s personality,” Connie said. This year, she settled on the traditional Miao dance, and a K-pop dance, which was done to a mix of songs from Korean pop groups EXO, SNSD and Miss A, as well as a tutting section in between.
Most of the dancers believed the Miao dance was significantly harder, with lots of movement across the stage, running, jumping, and spinning involved.
“It was my first year performing the traditional dance,” said Carolyn, “and it was a really fun experience.” One thing she noted was that the dance was very hard because a lot of time was spent remembering head movements, as well as the actual dance, and synchronizing it with the music. “It was strange to learn and I was always laughing while doing it,” she said.
The hardest part of learning the Miao dance for Michelle was embodying the style of dancing. “It’s not a pretty or flowery dance like I’m used to; it was very tribal and different,” she said.
Connie An agreed, “You get tired really fast when you’re practicing and it just gets worse and worse.”
The rehearsal for the Miao traditional and K-Pop dances combined lasted for more than three hours each practice.
Michelle Zhang said overcoming stage shyness was her biggest challenge. “When I started out, I felt awkward and not confident.,’ she said. “I realized that when I smile more, I look happier and confident, even though I’m still super nervous on stage.” She says her Chinese New Year performances were key to getting rid of her insecurities. “Performing made me a lot more comfortable with myself. There’s no room for hesitation, so just go for it,” she added.
And their favorite part of Chinese New Year?
It was a close call between “hong bao,” which are red envelopes with money inside, passed to children during the closing ceremony of the performance, and authentic Chinese food, including dumplings.
Sharon Luo is a freshman at Williamsville East High School.