‘Asian ballets’ continue traditions, embody cultures

by Sara Goo

Members of the Asian American Student Cultural Center put on a dance and musical variety show for lunchtime spectators at Coffman Memorial Union to share their cultures with the University.
Dressed in traditional dance outfits, the performers represented four Asian cultures: Thai, Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian.
Most performers were students who had learned how to dance their native dances.
“It’s all in the posture,” said Pannarith Koy, a Cambodian student who taught the other performing students the coconut dance.
The coconut dance pays tribute to a fruit that Cambodians rely on heavily for food and decoration, Koy said.
Cambodian dancing requires graceful but disciplined arching of the arms and fingers while moving the lower body. Dancers stand with their knees slightly bent.
In order to make his arms flexible to better perform the dance, Koy squats and places his forearms between his knees, pushing his hands outward against his calves; the resultant resistance builds strong, flexible arm muscles.
“You see little girls cry because it hurts” to bend their fingers back, Koy said.
Koy has danced since he was 8 years old. He carries on a tradition his parents believed was important — so much so, they hired someone to teach he and his siblings.
Unlike Koy, Biology major Acvosan Mene has only known the coconut dance for about a month.
“I was always growing up watching it,” Mene said. “It’s like an Asian ballet.”
When she was younger, Mene thought she was too tall to dance. Her involvement with the cultural center gave her a chance to learn more about her culture.
Students who performed a Laotian dance agreed.
“Through dancing, you kind of learn more about the country,” said Per Chomdokmai, a sophomore in the College of Liberal Arts. “To dance the dance right, you have to know why you are dancing.”
The Lao Student Organization performed a dance called “Lom Ma Ha Sai,” a courtship dance that tells a story of reunited lovers. In the dance, couples promenade close to one another, but they don’t touch.
“They tease each other,” Chomdokmai said.
Some Asians don’t learn their native dances because they aren’t brought up with the same traditions as their parents.
Some third- and fourth-generation Asians may be too far removed from their culture to learn the dances at a young age, Chomdokmai said.
For beginning students, there were intense practices before Monday’s performance, said Phonexay Pongmany, a sophomore architecture major.
The cultural center’s efforts were rewarded with an audience of about 50.
“I like the fact that people around it respected it,” said Darryl Jackson, an architecture major who watched the performance.
The exhibition was part of this week’s observance of Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month, sponsored by the cultural center. Students will have a quiz bowl today on Asian-American topics, and Friday they will have a festival with carnival-like games for Twin Cities elementary students.