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Dancing in the new year

BY JUSTUS FLAIR | JANUARY 30, 2014 5:00 AM

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Tucked away in a corner room in Halsey Hall, a small group of students is busy rehearsing through the afternoon.

Not an unusual sight for the building, which plays host to many dance rehearsals, but it seems doubtful anyone else in the building would practice a shadow dance and plan the details of a lion dance. It's also fairly safe to assume the five students are the only ones dancing to Vietnamese pop music, complete with Vietnamese lyrics.

The students are members of the Vietnamese Student Association, and they are preparing for the Lunar New Year — Tet, the New Year's holiday based on the Lunar Calendar. The holiday will be observed Friday.

The Vietnamese Students Association will host a Tet celebration at 6 p.m. Saturday in the IMU Main Lounge, featuring prominent Vietnamese singer Anh Minh. Admission is free; dress is semiformal.

"Lunar New Year is one of the most important and heavily celebrated holidays in Vietnamese culture and in many other Asian cultures," said Diane Pham, the president of the Vietnamese Student Association. "It celebrates the arrival of spring, and it's a way to look back on the last year and celebrate what you've been given."

Though still focused on giving thanks, the holiday has lost much of its religious connotations over the past few years.

"For the religious connotations around it, I think that's more important to the older generations," said Kevin Nguyen, the secretary of the Vietnamese Student Association.

Many of the group's members said the religious offerings and blessings are not done in their families anymore. These days, the event is focused more on the traditions of asking for good fortune in the future and celebrating the past year.

"In the beginning of the event, we have a traditional lion dance, so we have a lion costume, and they go around and dance with the crowd, who'll feed the lion money," Pham said. "We also give out red envelopes to children containing small amounts of money; it's wishing good luck and good fortune for the following year."

Another traditional dance, a shadow dance, will also be presented by members. Two members of the group, Emii Le and Leslie Chareunsab, choreographed the dance.

"The shadow dance incorporates the use of traditional props that are used during dances, such as hats, fans, and rhythmic movements of the dancers," Chareunsab said.

The shadow dance features dancers behind a screen, back-lit so only silhouettes are visible (hence the name). Usually the dance tells a story, and this year's dance will tell a love story.

"The story I am trying to tell in the shadow dance is about the struggle of a young couple that have fallen in love, but they are from two different backgrounds and aren't destined to be together," Chareunsab said about her first attempt at a shadow dance.

The final dance is much more modern. It will be performed to the song of the event's special guest, Anh Minh.

"Every year, we try to get a famous Vietnamese singer, famous in the Vietnamese-American population; the dance will be to her music," Pham said. "Anh Minh is probably one of the most famous and upcoming singers that I know of."

She believes the appeal of a younger singer and the performance of a Vietnamese pop dance will help attract a younger audience, which audience is crucial on a college campus.

The association also worked to involve more people on campus and make sure those outside the Vietnamese population were included.

"We have other groups from campus who perform at our events as well," Pham said. "Performing [at the Lunar New Year event] we have UI Breakers and Iowa Andi."

In addition to this wide variety of dances, the celebration will also feature a showing of traditional Vietnamese clothing presented by some of the 15 members of the group.

"We wear traditional Vietnamese dresses and present the Vietnamese flags for the opening ceremonies. Now, we wear them mostly just for presentations, but growing up as a kid, people wore the dresses all day for the celebration," said Jasmine Le, the group's treasurer.

The organization hopes this eclectic variety of events will draw in a large crowd to learn about Vietnamese culture.

"It's different from the American New Year; it's more showcasing our culture," Jasmine Le said. "There are a lot of traditional games and the food especially. What's really popular for New Year is chewing on watermelon seeds."


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