Arts and Culture

Young Vietnamese church group spreads vibrant culture of lion dancing in Twin Cities

dancing team practice together
Members of the DTG Lions lion dancing team practice together in their rehearsal space in Minneapolis on Feb. 3.
Liam James Doyle for MPR News

As church members rushed to hang red decorations around the auditorium, the dancers were practicing stances and lifts for their lions’ movements.

The 16-day cultural festival starts on Saturday, ushering in the Year of the Dragon and good luck for the new year. But the dancers had already performed at several Lunar New Year celebrations in the Twin Cities area for Chinese and Vietnamese communities, with more scheduled.

Lion costume heads are packed up
Minh Pham (left) and others pack up lion heads for a performance by members of the DTG Lions lion dancing team in their rehearsal space.
Liam James Doyle for MPR News

“I think at this point, everybody’s very tired,” said Minh Pham, 23, choreographer of Minneapolis-based DTG Lions. “We’re trying to put everything we have into all of the lions that we have, and yeah, just excited for really awesome performances.”

The dance group is based in St. Anne’s Vietnamese church community. It’s mostly made up of high school students, who spend their Saturdays practicing and performing.

lion costume for a portrait
Alphonse Pham, 27, left, and Michael Pham, 24, members of the DTG Lions lion dancing team model their lion costume for a portrait during their rehearsal.
Liam James Doyle for MPR News

Lion dancing stems from ancient folklore

Lion dance is a complex style of cultural dance that comes from China, but is an art form that is also performed in Vietnamese and Korean culture. Two dancers must be in sync to deliver powerful movements and dynamic lifts, mimicking the actions of a lion. One dancer stands inside the head, pulling strings to make the lion blink and open its mouth, while the other holds the first dancer’s hips and acts as the lion’s behind.

It’s an ancient tradition that stems from an old folklore and is believed to chase evil spirits away.

“Back then, around the Lunar New Years, there used to be demons, these monsters that would come and attack the villages, right. And the story goes, one day, there was these mythical creatures — that look very similar to lions you’ll see today — these mythical creatures, they come in and they save the village, and everybody’s super grateful,” said Minh.

 dancing team socialize and practice
Members of the DTG Lions lion dancing team socialize and practice together in their rehearsal space.
Liam James Doyle for MPR News

To bring the spirit of the lions back the following year, the villagers started making mascots resembling the mythical creatures — similar to the lions that are seen today. They typically have a mirror on top of the center of the head, which is meant to drive the evil spirits away when they see their reflection.

The tradition has evolved into art performance and is a staple for Lunar New Year celebrations. Lion dance is typically accompanied by music from drums, cymbals and gongs. DTG Lions has a few members who specialize in playing those instruments.

Dancing team practice together
Members of the DTG Lions lion dancing team practice together in their rehearsal space.
Liam James Doyle for MPR News

“For the drum part, it helps guide the lions but also is the heartbeat of it. And it sets the tone of the story and also emphasizes that as we have various tempos and dynamics throughout the whole performance,” said Thomas Tran.

DTG Lions means community for young Vietnamese Minnesotans

For the younger generation of Vietnamese Minnesotans at St. Anne’s like Tran, DTG Lions is a special community.

“For me, it’s just nice to have a Vietnamese community that's all similar to me and they all just enjoy the same thing that I do,” said Tran, who’s 17 years old.

Lion costume heads sit
Lion costume heads sit waiting for members of the DTG Lions lion dancing team to practice together in their rehearsal space.
Liam James Doyle for MPR News

Although lion dancing is an old tradition, it’s been a unique way for people in DTG Lions to both connect with their culture and build friendships.

“On the weekdays, these kids are going to American school, they're hanging out with their American friends and all that stuff. But I think the beauty is you have that one day a week where you can come as a Vietnamese community, learn our tradition, hang out with people within our community, and really share that with other people when we go out and perform,” said Minh.

Minh leads DTG Lions with Michael Pham, 24, who is in charge of physical training for the group. They both have been with DTG Lions for at least five years and remember a time when they had only a handful of people performing in the group.

Now, it’s grown rapidly over the past two years as they’ve expanded to performing outside of their church community.

“What sets us apart is the amount of youth, the amount of kids that we have in our group. And we're always growing,” said Michael.

Lunar New Year decorations are hung
Lunar New Year decorations are hung in the rehearsal space of the DTG Lions lion dancing team.
Liam James Doyle for MPR News
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