What's at stake:
as younger generations adapt to American culture, traditional dancing has become more of a leisure activity, and older generations have had to work harder to preserve the custom.
When Alexis Yang dances, she tells the stories of the Hmong culture while wearing the vibrant colors and patterns of traditional clothing.
Messages are spread through each dance movement according to the song lyrics. The dances are typically performed at festivities, attracting large, excited crowds.
“It makes me feel confident and opens more opportunities for me to grow and learn new things,” said Alexis Yang, a member of the Nkauj Yub Nag dance team.
Traditional dancing uplifts young women like 8-year-old Alexis to showcase their talents while also strengthening their bonds with one another.
Usually, it takes Kevin Kue about a month to develop a new dance routine for the Hmong competitive dance team he coaches.
Kue, a 17-year-old high school student, is a volunteer coach at the Hmong Cultural Arts Preservation, a nonprofit organization in Fresno.
“Dancing is very important, especially for the girls,” said Kue, who coaches the Nkauj Hmoob Tshwj Xeeb, or Important Girls. “It is a way for us to represent our Hmong clothing and also to express our culture.”
The tradition has been passed down from generations of sisters since the arrival of the Hmongs in America.
“The routines are created according to the lyrics and the beat,” Kue explained. “Your body, especially your hands, tells the song’s story.”
But, as younger generations adapt to American culture, traditional dancing has become more of a leisure activity, and older generations have had to work harder to preserve the custom.
The dancers at Fresno’s Hmong Cultural Arts Preservation celebrate and maintain the traditions and culture to pass down to the younger generations.
“We are concerned about our kids not getting cultural education, so we started this out to preserve the tradition,” said Pa Vang, the HCAP program director. “We have grown quite big to where we thought we would never be.”
But the tradition is also changing. While Hmong dancing has typically been a tradition for younger women, dancers like Kue and Rity Xiong have paved the way for Hmong men to join in recent years.
Fresno’s Hmong Cultural Arts Preservation
The Hmong Cultural Arts Preservation is a nonprofit organization established in Fresno in late 2019. Its mission is to preserve the performance arts within the new generations of Hmong Americans through its dance program while raising awareness of the Hmong culture.
The organization started with 30 students. Today, there are more than 100 students made possible by Hmong community members who volunteered to educate the new generation.
The dance groups in HCAP are divided into two separate teams: performance and competition.
The performance teams include three groups: Ntxhais Ci Ntsa Iab (Daughters Who Sparkle and Shine), Hmoob Ntxhais Ntxawm (Youthful Daughters), and Hmoob Tej Ntxhais (Hmong Daughters).
The competitive teams include six groups: Nkauj Yub Nag (Seeds of the Rain), Kab Ntsais Lias (Twinkling Fireflies), Nkauj Hmoob Tshwj Xeeb (Important Girls), Viv Ncaus Koom Siab (United Sisters), Paj Duab Ntxoo (Flower Silhouette), Paj Tawg Hmo Ntuj (Blooming Night Flower).
Auditions are held at the start of enrollment for their competitive teams. The average years of experience of a competitive dancer is approximately one to two years. The teams practice for two hours twice a week, and practice times double on the week of competition.
Award-winning groups Viv Ncaus Koom Siab and Nkauj Hmoob Tshwj Xeem recently competed at the Hmong National Labor Day event in Oshkosh, Wisc.
Varsity dance group Viv Ncaus Koom Siab took home first place at the event. The group also made history in the past year by taking first place at all Hmong New Year celebrations across California, including Stockton, Sacramento, Merced, and Fresno.
On Jan. 5, the City of Fresno recognized the award-winning group with a proclamation for their efforts to preserve the Hmong heritage.
“Hmong dancing takes a lot of commitment, and it’s not easy,” said Celia Xiong, 20, a dance member of Viv Ncaus Koom Siab. “Every group should be credited.”
Competitive dancers dedicate their time outside school hours to practice for these events.
Xiong said her favorite thing about Hmong dancing is performing in unique costumes and being surrounded by her own community.
The dancers describe the competitive scene as intense.
“You can just feel the tension, and you never know who’s the winner when you’re walking past them,” said the dancer of Nkauj Hmoob Tshwj Xeeb.
“We might be competing against each other, but I feel that we are all sisters supporting one another,” said Saiya Lee, 12, a member of Kab Ntsais Lias.
Dancers of HCAP urge others to partake in Hmong dancing to share and connect with their traditional roots.
“It makes me feel confident, and it opens more opportunities for me to grow and learn new things about my culture,” said Alexis.
The dance groups perform all year round at festivals in Fresno and its surrounding cities. On occasions, you might see the teams competing out of state. Vang encourages festival hosts to inquire about the dance groups to perform at their events.
HCAP is always looking for opportunities to help the community and educate others about the Hmong culture.
In the future, HCAP hopes to expand its program in Hmong literature, ‘Qeej’ musical classes, and line dancing to include community members of all genders and age groups.
If you would like to contribute to the organization, you can contact HCAP through email at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit their Facebook page for registration information.