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Claiming Ritual: Female Lion Dancing in Boston’s Chinatown

  • Author(s): Avaunt, Casey
  • Advisor(s): Kraut, Anthea
  • et al.
Abstract

This doctoral thesis investigates female practices of the lion dance in Boston's Chinatown, focusing primarily on the all-women’s company Gund Kwok. For most of lion dancing’s millennia-old history, women have been barred women from joining the dance. They have been excluded due to notions that menstruation contaminates the ritual purity of the practice and the belief that women do not possess the physical stamina and strength needed to perform these rigorous dances. In recent years, however, women have been practicing and performing lion dances to break down gender barriers and take ownership of this form. Though literature on female lion dancing in Boston is sparse, it usually stresses the empowerment that women achieve through lion dance practice. In this study, I notice empowerment when it arises, but I also consider the tensions between Asian American female bodies and multiple political, social, and economic frameworks. I argue that lion dancing offers a pathway for women to achieve power while still demonstrating how racialized female dancing bodies become implicated in various ideological and discursive systems.

My project begins in Boston’s Chinatown, where I turn to histories of young women who performed lion dances within fundraising spectacles during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945). Though participating in these masculine dances was incongruous for women of that era, I suggest that Chinese American women were adhering to ideologies of Chinese nationalism, which emphasized narratives of heroic, non-gender conforming women. Later, I use ethnographic methodologies to research contemporary female lion dancers from Gund Kwok. I explore how training in the lion dance activates a potential to work against gendered and racialized bodily subjectivities. Specifically, I analyze how the techniques of lion dance offer a means of resistance to the ways in which Asian American women’s bodies have been framed in patriarchal and racist systems. I then map out the different types of performances that Gund Kwok engages in throughout the year and tease out the effects these performances have on the ritual itself, the performers, and the greater Boston community. In doing so, I analyze how Gund Kwok both performs within systems of power while also locating agency within these frameworks. Finally, I highlight the role of the sisterhood in Gund Kwok, suggesting that this type of community formation, while contested, provides important functions for the group.

Grounded in a Critical Dance Studies approach, this study examines the role of the body in facilitating and challenging modalities of power. I closely examine how female lion dance technique and performance intersect with theoretical conversations in a number of disciplines, including Asian American Studies and Gender Studies. In doing so, I aim to bring scholarly attention to this popular diasporic dance form—providing analysis of the contradictions, struggles, and resistance embedded in its enactment.

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