Dancers of all ages dressed in colorful costumes tweaked their makeup and chattered happily in Chinese as they waited for their chance to perform on Jan. 21. While the Chinese Lunar New Year officially begins on Jan. 28, celebrations began early with the Howard County Chinese School's Lunar New Year Gala at Glenelg High School on Saturday.
A tradition for almost 20 years, the annual gala highlights Chinese culture with food, music and traditional Chinese folk dance.
"It showcases how rich our culture is," said Wendy Xia Boehlert, of the gala. "[China] is a big country with all kinds of talent."
Looking around the room, Boehlert easily identified several regions of China just by the costumes the dancers were wearing.
"China has a lot of different ethnic groups and each group has different traditions," Boehlert said. "Each has specific dance music and movements."
Dances in the northern parts of China, for example, have distinct hats and hand movements that are "very unique," Boehlert said.
The dances also tell a story, according to Lei Zhang, of Fulton, whose daughters were also dancing in the gala.
"Chinese dances all tell a story. They have a character," Zhang said. "It's a story your face expresses, your body, they all come together. You learn what the dance is about."
By learning the different Chinese folk dances, her children are learning the different regions of China and some history, too, Zhang said.
"'Orchids in the Rain' is a classic Chinese dance from the southern part of China," Zhang said, of her daughter's dance. "We want them to learn about China."
"It's nice to have her do the traditional dances," said Tom Boehlert of his and Wendy's daughter, Kellie, 11. "She loves it. It is a good way to do the New Year."
Kellie's dance was from the western part of China, she said
"I have it every week and it is fun," Kellie said, of Chinese dance classes.
While her featured dance was not a Chinese folk dance, Emily Hai, 13, was proud to dance in the gala.
"In China, dance is a part of our culture and there are many different types," Hai said. "We're celebrating ... to remember our heritage."
One of the most recognized Chinese dances is the Lion Dance. Traditionally performed during the lunar year celebrations, the Lion Dance is said to bring good luck, according to Don Fauver, a staff member at Jow Ga Martial Arts Studio in Columbia. Though it did not perform at the gala, for the last 20 years, the studio has performed the dance for businesses, schools, retirement homes and restaurants, Fauver said. Hunan Manor, in Columbia, will feature the group performing on Feb. 5, at 1 p.m.
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"The Lunar New Year is very, very special for us," said Wei Guo, chairwoman, of the gala. "In China, most people go back to their home, to their parents. It is a very important time for Chinese people. Similar to Thanksgiving in the U.S."
People will travel great distances to return home, Guo said, and festivities carry on for two weeks.
"It is a family reunion, everyone gets together," said Amy Duan, of Ellicott City, of lunar new year. Duan has danced several folk dances in the past years.. "You eat dumplings and rice cakes. It is the largest festival for China. There is singing and different types of performances."
For the gala, many groups want to participate in the celebration, but Guo tries to keep the program to no longer than two-and-a-half hours. A committee selects the performers. This year, there were 24 performers showcasing folk dances, singing, comedy and classical Chinese music.
Jack Wang and his wife, Carrie Lu, sang a classical Chinese song.
"It expresses the feelings of love for China," Wang said, of the duet, "My Love China." "We're excited to sing it this time for Chinese New Year."
This year the evening began for the first time with a reception that featured traditional Chinese food, including steamed dumplings and rice cakes as well as special dishes just for the lunar year, according to Zhao Xiao-ning, who helped prepare the dishes.
"So many people came, everything sold you," Xiao-ning said, of the food. "There was food from every region."