By Ange Hwang
Minnesota Sunshine Dance has a lot to celebrate these days. They have not only just finished a successful guest appearance with 28 dancers at the O’Shaughnessy Auditorium with UCAM’s “China the Beautiful” annual show, along with their summer China Performance Tour last August 2010.
Minnesota Sunshine Dance is a traditional Hmong dance troupe with a long history of success under the Artistic Director Iny Mai Vang’s leadership. Their success has drawn honors including multiple 1st Place wins at dance competitions at the Hmong New Years events.
It all started around 2000 with a few talented Hmong girls practicing at the home in their basement. Today, there are 52 regular members in a dance troupe with four-levels of classes and a touring program.
“Our success comes from our dedicated young dancers, and parents,” said Mai Vang, artistic director. “Their enthusiasm for dance has inspired me to create, choreograph and want to bring the best opportunities to these youth.”
The dancers recently had the opportunity to participate in a Cultural Exchange Opportunity with China. They toured a month from July 7th through August 4th, 2010, performing and visiting cities, such as Shenzhen, Jinan, and Qufu.
The 20 dance-member group was invited by two international organizations to perform Hmong traditional dances at 2010 China-US Youth Performing Arts Festival, and Shandong International Youngsters’ Cultural Festival. In addition to performances throughout the cities, the dancers’ delegation participated at various cultural events, with the enthusiasm to share US culture with Chinese counterparts.
In order to make the trip a reality China, the girls practiced 40 hours a day to learn various dances, while also studying basic Chinese language lessons to better enjoy the exchange experience. They spent Saturdays hosting garage sales and hip-hop competitions to earn traveling money.
The work paid off with hard-earned applause from the Chinese on their artistic quality and great manners as United States cultural ambassadors.
Their delegation started in Shenzhen, where other youth from Harvard University, the University of Maryland, Alaska Youth Orchestra and other groups gathered together with more than 200 members of a local Chinese youth group to participate in cultural activities sponsored by the American International Students Foundation.
Each group represented their respective countries and presented their best performances. Minnesota Sunshine dancers presented four dances, the Hmong Water Bucket dance, then a Bollywood, Hip-Hop and a Robot dance. The latter dances were not to highlight dance skills as much as to showcase American culture.
To Preparatory Committee of Shenzhen 2011 World University also invited the Minnesota delegation to the famous Shenzhen Civic Center for the Opening of World University Games with performances, balloon releasing, and signing the pledge activities. The delegations’ performances received high remarks from the audience, with media events and interviews following, including the Shenzhen Daily, the only local English-language newspaper and the local business journal.
The delegation also spent time in Shenzhen teaching English to Chinese youth and interacted with local citizens, who in turn taught them the Chinese fan dance and tai chi. They also hosted a Halloween party and made presentations about Minnesota.
The girls also had a tour of Hong Kong, where they visited Star Avenue, taking pictures with Jackie Chan’s hand print, feeling the breeze blowing in from Victoria Bay, window shopping at famous brand-name stores. They were impressed that evening with a stunning laser show in the Bay area.
The delegation concluded the exchange activities in Shenzhen on July 25. The most difficult part was saying good-bye to other delegation friends, and volunteers. The girls exchanged emails, QQ addresses to took advantage of modern technology to maintain new friendships.
The delegation moved on to Jinan in Shandong Province to participate in the Shandong International Youngsters’ Cultural Festival from July 26 – 31. It was hosted by the Shandong Department of Foreign Affairs.
The delegation performed at the Opening Ceremony with hundreds of youth from around the world. The youth then visited the famous Leopard Spring Park, Thousand Buddha Mountain and the origin of the Yellow River, the cradle of Chinese civilization. The evening brought opportunities to enjoy world-class Peking Opera and Acrobatic performances.
The delegation visited Qufu, considered the hometown of Confucius, where they received a warm welcome from local officials. They participated in a 2,200 year-old ceremony, visited the Confucius’ birth and burial places, and enjoyed the traditional music and dance performances, along with learning about Confucian philosophy and his vision for the world.
Following the Qufu visit, the delegation visited the Shandong Experimental Primary School where students exchanged cultural games and arts activities, and planted Friendship Trees together. Delegation members were invited to local students’ homes for “A day in China” activities to experience the home life of Chinese students.
The experience inspired discussion among delegation members and of their different, but enjoyable moments with their Chinese host families. They were able to have authentic Chinese dinner in the open air, visit public bath facilities, ride a human-powered tricycle.
The Confucius Six Arts Museum hosted the delegations for a Welcoming Ceremony. Wearing the ancient “Spring and Autumn Period” costume, the youth were welcomed to experience the arts of chess, music, writing, painting, archery and horse riding – defined by the Confucius as the most important skills for adults.
The delegation members were presented certificates of participation that were written in the ancient style, along with blue graduation gowns and a photo to capture the perfect cultural exchange moment.
The delegation headed to the capital of Beijing, starting with a sightseeing tour. They visited the Forbidden City, Tianmen Square, National Palace Museum, climbed the Badaling Great Wall, and had a great time shopping at Beijing’s flee market. They moved on to tour the World Expo at Shanghai, now China’s largest modern city.
The delegation returned to Minnesota on August 4, with hearts filled with memories of new friendships, and luggage packed with souvenirs, gifts and honors.
Iny Mai Vang said the unique opportunity led to an invitation to perform a debut piece, Qeej Hmoob (pronounced keng hmong), at the annual CAAM Chinese Dance Performance at O’Shaughnessy Auditorium in January.
The Qeej is a traditional music instrument that is played in major holidays and ceremonies by the Hmong people and found throughout Eastern Asia. It is a bamboo and wooden mouth organ with six pipes of different lengths attached to a wooden air chamber.
The musician performs mandatory steps of spinning to confuse evil spirits which may try to prevent the soul of the deceased from joining his ancestors, and then larger circular patterns to indicate the journey on horseback of the soul.
Iny Mai Vang adapts the tradition and incorporates graceful dance movements and enhances with group formations to honor the Qeej. This debut performance with CAAM reflected the cross-cultural experience these girls had, along with their vision of honoring and preserving their own cultural heritage throughout the world.
Minnesota Sunshine is supported by Asian Media Access, COMPAS, Minnesota Regional Arts Council, and Minnesota State Arts Board’s “Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.”
They will perform next on March 6, noon, at the Asian Media Access Lunar New Year Gala at Varsity Theater. They will perform again May 1st for the Pan Asian Arts Festival at Landmark Center at noon. They will perform May 28 – 29 for the Pan Asian Dance Festival at the Burnsville Performing Arts Center (www.panasisanartsalliance)
For more information about Minnesota Sunshine, and to enroll in the program contact Asian Media Access, at 612-376-7715 and [email protected]
Ange Hwang is the executive director of Asian Media Access.