Haivhmoob Dance School for Hmong children and youth, in the lower level of the Sunrise Market Building at 995 University Avenue in St. Paul, is growing both in the number of students and the expansion of dance programs. The sounds of happy children who are excited to come to their evening and weekend practices and performances, along with the expressed satisfaction of parents, gives testimony to the school’s impact on their lives far more so than does the long line of trophies.
Haivhmoob, Inc. is a non-profit organization with a mission to promote and develop Hmong dance in America. The school is ran by Zajlaug (James) Wu and his spouse Gui Mei Vue, who is the Artistic Director. The two met in 1995 when James Wu was in Hunan province of China to research his Hmong roots. While he was there he met Gui Mei Vue, who is of Tai Lu ethnic origin, is originally from Wang Gui Mei, Long Lin, Guangxi province. She was schooled in the city as a professional dance instructor in the southern province of Xishuanbana, China, near the northern border of Laos.
Gui Mei Vue is fluent in ethnic Hmong dance styles, along with that of many of the ethnic groups that make up China and Southeast Asia. Her schooling provided a strong Chinese influence on her language, education and dance instruction.
The two eventually married and returned to Minneapolis. They started a Hmong dancing program for girls at the Hmong American Mutual Assistance Association, Inc. (HAMAA) in Minneapolis around 1998. Wu was the executive director at the time, and the program remained until a few years ago when, according the HAMAA, a budget crisis forced them to cut the dance program.
The name of the program, The Hmong Butterfly Dancers, remains at HAMAA, however, its artistic director, Gui Mei Vue, moved on to form the Haivhmoob Dance School in 2003.
“After the first year the group grew rapidly and loved it very much,” said Gui Mei Vue. “The kids like it and stay with it and we want to continue to grow.”
The school grew from 35 to 75 students by its third year, and had more than 150 students last year. Initially, the motivation was just to create a place for kids to learn dance, but as time moved on we added classes in different styles and the idea of competing presented itself.
“My vision is teaching Hmong dance style to the kids, and second to get the kids off the street and doing something positive that will help them grow and keep their cultural identity,” said James Wu of the school’s goals.
The kids took to competition and they felt the spirit was positive and so was consistent with the school’s goals as it helped class interest and recruiting. It works because the kids love it and work hard without being pushed too hard.
The criticism of blending Chinese and Vietnamese styles was muted with the reaction of impressed crowds as well as judges in recent competitions.
Since starting to compete in the annual Hmong New Year dance performances, the school has repeatedly won at least one first place title in 1999, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2005, 2006 and 2007. “…If one team wins, then all the teams win,” said Wu.
The boys came more recently and have added not only the male dance line, but also a whole new realm of possibilities for mixed dance routines.
With the growing number of students, and the addition of boy dancers, Gui Mei Vue’s time was becoming precious.
Fortunately, Mrs. Dao Lan, another professional dancer and instructor from Xishuangbanna, China, came on board in 2005. She took on two dance teams and is very good with the kids.
Dai Lan teaches two groups, one of four girls ages 6-8, who joined late in the last cycle, and one larger group of 25, in the 6-8 age range.
“These are mostly first year beginners,” she said. “These are kids that came from Laos in December 2005.”
A little later in the evening the more experienced dancers come in to train. There are 8 teams or groups of girls ages 5 to 18. They are taught in their age groups (5-6, 7-11, and mixed 9-15). The experienced dances ages 14-18 make up the main performing group. The majority of the girls are 9-11.
One mother of five children enrolled in the classes, 3 boys and 2 girls ages 9-15, said it just took one daughter to join and the rest of came along later. She supports them by making the costumes from a pattern design created by Gui Mei Vue.
“The kids just like it,” she said. “I don’t have to get them to like it. One joined and the rest followed.”
The children like the instructors and feel proud when they perform because they worked so hard to get that opportunity.
“I am glad that they can start so young so that when they grow up they will think that this is important,” she added.
A common theme among the parents is that dance classes and performing has improved self-esteem, confidence, and helped many children to overcome shyness.
Adora Lor, said that her daughter Megan Thao, 6, a first year student, saw the dancers at the New Year and wanted to join. “She loves to be here and is excited to be with the other kids,” said Lor. “Dance is her passion and she loves to learn and to perform. I want her to embrace her culture.”
Lee Thao and Vang Yang Thao, parents of Mynonghli Thao, 7, another first year student, said that she loves to be part of something that is fun with her friends.
“She loves it,” said Lee Thao. “I see a big change in her.”
Wu explained the importance of blending styles to keep the kids excited in dance. They can learn “true Hmong cultural dance” when taught it in comparison with other styles, whether it is Chinese, Thai, Lao, or Vietnamese. He envisions that in the future the girls will want to blend elements of Indian dance, or even hip-hop to stretch into the American mainstream.
Wu says that to illustrate the point that a Hmong traditional dance art is being formed and as long as the instructors and students have a sense of what is authentic and what is blended then they learn. The added elements are all part of the creative dance process and it has to have room to grow.
Call 612-669-2067 to learn more about the Haivhmoob dance school, or visit online at www.haivhmoob.org.