Dances are often associated with specific countries, a simple example being Argentine Tango and Argentina. There are many other such examples: samba and Capoeira occurring in Brazil, jigs and reels in Ireland, Bharatanatyam in India and salsa dance in Mexico. Not many people know what type of dancing to expect within the Hmong culture, but Jackie Npauj Nyiag Yang – a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Hmong dancer/choreographer – agreed to an interview in order to inform people about a dance that has been evolving since the 1970s.
Yang situates us by referring to the 1970s, when the Hmong army joined forces with Laotian army, siding with the Americans as CIA. She explains that dance was used as entertainment, especially during the New Year’s celebrations, when the Hmong people were struggling in harsh conditions and dispersed throughout Laos. At this time Hmong dance emphasized hand gestures, similarly to the Lao dance called morlam which emphasizes the rhythm and structure of the music.
During the next two decades Yang credits the vibrant Indian Bollywood dancing as influencing Hmong dance. She notes that the dance became freer, allowing more movement of the hips, and how the dancers strove to be uniform. Like Bollywood, the choreography was (and is) related to the meaning of the song, synced with the lyrics.
Today Yang cites multiple influences such as the Korean entertainment industry. Dance groups are influenced by hip-hop, as seen with Replay of the Hmong American Student’s Association. Nowadays Hmong dance groups not only celebrate holidays, some compete in larger cities Wisconsin such as Madison and Milwaukee. In Minnesota the dancing has ties to Chinese dancing and acrobatics and on the West Coast connections to Laotian and Thai dancing are visible.
Most importantly, Hmong dancing is a way to preserve the wide array of sub-cultures of the larger Hmong population. Hmong dance calls for traditional dress and keeps individuals fluent in dialects and poetry. However, the tradition has evolved. Both Hmong dancers have learned hip-hop and dancers that are not Hmong have learned these forms of dance. Some married women are now dancing, though there is still a stigma towards their participation as being too loose or inviting, and some men have joined in the preservation of culture through movement.