By Emily Lnenicka
Over the past couple of months, studying Vietnamese dance in Vietnam has been by far my most surreal experience to date. Between studying the dance technique, adapting to a different teaching style, learning to sing Vietnamese opera, and understanding the story and motivation behind the art form, my learning curve has been incredibly steep.
As a result, not only have I learned a new dance form, but I have also learned more about Vietnamese culture. And in the process, I learned more about myself than I could have ever hoped to achieve without pursuing this dance project.
Having said that, embarking on this study was no easy feat. On the contrary, it was quite possibly the most challenging undertaking I have ever pursued. When I showed up for my first class in Tương—a Vietnamese form of opera that incorporates singing, dancing, and acting to tell traditional Vietnamese folk tales—I was still relatively new to Hà Nội, and Vietnam in general.
Upon learning that my teacher spoke little to no English, and seeing her demonstrate this art form, which was vastly different from what I had anticipated learning, I immediately felt daunted by my task to complete this study.
However, miles away from home, I had no choice but to wholeheartedly throw myself into the study of Tương, and to hope for the best. The language barrier between my instructor and I was an immediate stumbling block. However, as I continued to study the Vietnamese language and learned the vast communicative value of body language and hand gestures, the lessons progressed and I began learning a great deal.
What I learned, though, was not limited to the technique of Tương. I attended several different performances of Vietnamese opera, comparing and contrasting these styles with that of Tương. Through the lens of the Vietnamese dance world, I was able to gain a deeper understanding of the greater culture of Vietnam, and the Vietnamese people.
Presently, Vietnam is under-going rapid economic and industrial development, and the people of Vietnam are shaping their goals and values to those of the Western world. Unfortunately, as a result, many of the traditional art forms that made Vietnamese culture so rich are, in fact, being abandoned in favor of more modern and Western arts.
In doing so, Vietnam is losing much of the rich and distinctive culture that has been around for thousands of years, and all that has contributed to shaping the country.
Tương, for example, is incredibly reflective of Vietnam’s history and culture. The music uses traditional Vietnamese instruments, the songs are sung in the original Vietnamese language (with a great deal of vocabulary that has since fallen out of use), the dancing is very unique, and the stories have been passed down in Vietnam for generations.
After studying Tương for a few weeks, I was saddened to hear that it is a dying art form. With the increase in development and modernization, Tương continues to decrease in popularity as the youth of Vietnam seek increasingly more “Western” hobbies and forms of entertainment.
As I continued to learn, and became more familiar with Tương, and the overall culture of Vietnam, the art form no longer seemed as strange to me.
I have decided that instead of creating my own piece for the Steinmetz Dance Performance, I would like to perform the authentic Tương piece that I learned while in Vietnam.
Not only is the piece very interesting to watch, but I also like the idea of helping to spread Tương, and perhaps in doing so, restore some of its popularity and facilitate its continued existence in the country.
I hope that through exposure to Tương, people will gain insight into a culture that is drastically different from what we are immersed in at Union College.