Thursday, January 07, 2010

Why Lao Traditional Dance?

It's been a good year for securing support and interest for Lao traditional dance in Minnesota. But beyond looking 'pretty', why encourage Lao dance in the US?

Laotian culture embraces over 60 diverse ethnic groups with distinctive artistic traditions. This includes the dance forms collectively known as fon phun muang. Most emerged as expressions of Buddhist teachings and mythologies. The best-known forms are precise, stylized movements based on classical Buddhist mudra hand gestures.

In their finest presentation, the dances can effectively express cultural values of compassion, the search for enlightenment, education, truth and the building of community, the rejection of greed, hate, conflict and interpersonal violence. The dances can also be seen as a statement on the value of nature, the environment and the appreciation of beauty and the arts. And we shouldn't forget that.

These dances constitute a body of over 600 years of intergenerational conversation regarding the Laotian identity and values. It is a discussion that has come with risks and many changes over the centuries, but this is the nature of all art.

For example, the well-known fon uay is a welcome dance for honored guests, particularly those from diverse communities.

Meanwhile, dances such as the fon dok champa or the fon nang keo reference ancient Laotian artistic works such as the Pharak Pharam and the Khati Khong Xaoban Lao, keeping knowledge and interest alive even under stressful circumstances and limited resources.

Preserving these dances in communities around the world provide a positive unifying anchor for over 400,000 Laotian refugees and expatriates.
Unfortunately, between 1975 to the present, interest in classical Laotian dance arts and music declined in many communities. Post-traumatic stress, the death of many elders and master artisans were factors. Additionally, refugee resettlement often deprioritized artistic expression, dismissed as a luxury activity by many agencies. These agencies failed to understand the relevance of the traditional arts to successful refugee development as individuals and communities.

The arts can provide an alternative to gang culture and delinquency, teaching youth discipline and self-empowerment, healthy exercise and dietary habits, creative problem solving skills, collaborative teamwork skills, stress reduction as well as education in history and expertise in verbal and non-verbal expression in public settings. Good training expands youth leadership and community advocates, developing a well-rounded knowledge of community issues and opportunities.
Traditional art performances provide unique social, economic and educational benefits and an excellent, highly cost-effective return on community investments, and it is my hope that in the future we will continue to see these traditions nurtured and cherished.

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