Vietnamese Lion / Dragon Dance

Excerpts from a Conversation between Laura Westbrook and Johnny Huynh


LW: Johnny Huynh and I are talking about the Vietnamese community of New Orleans East, and about the Lion Dance, sometimes also called the Dragon Dance. Johnny, you were telling me about Vietnamese life on the West Bank, and the connection between the Catholic culture, Buddhist culture, and dragon dance traditions.

JH: The Vietnamese community in New Orleans-all the Vietnamese communities are centered around the religions. If you look at the major Vietnamese churches-the church is there, and the communities just built up around it. This is especially evident with the New Orleans East community. The West Bank has three churches-one is in Avondale and one is in Algiers-where the community is really tightly knit with their church. The one in Marrero is a little different in the sense that the community was there before, and the church was built afterward.

Johnny Huynh. Photo: Laura Westbrook.

In the Vietnamese community, there has always been a sense of camaraderie. In a way, it's almost been like it's us against everybody else. It reflected the way the church operated, or the temples operated, in that when you were very young, the kids you grew up with-you were born together, you played together, you went to school together, and then by the time you got old enough [you would] join a youth organization-all the churches and all the temples have a youth organization.

The youth organizations would have activities and usually what happens is that the guys would do dragon dancing and the girls would do some form of traditional dance. After a while, probably not more than ten years ago, the adults keep their hands off of it. Essentially, it's all the kids who just hand it down to the next group. That's where it's kind of dicey, and it's also unique, in the sense that if the generation handing it off to the next generation drops the ball, then you see this gap for a while before another generation decides to pick up the mantle again and essentially build it back up again from scratch.

Lion dance at Tet Trung Thu celebration, Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church, New Orleans, 2006. Photo: Courtesy of Ken Ng.

LW: Because there's not a group of adults who are overseeing it, it really is handed from the youth who do it to the next youth who do it.

JH: Yes, that's exactly the way it is. When you come in, you're 11, 12, 13, the people who teach you, coach you, who arrange everything would be 14, 15, 16. You occasionally get kids who were 18, 19, and 20, like myself, who worked with the kids for a while. I'm still working with some of them now. It's not as common when you get to, say, mid-college-your junior year and above, for that person to continue working. It's usually handed off to the next group, and they take care of the kids for the following generation.

LW: So it may be about 15 years that someone would do it, from the time they're in their early teens to the time they're in their early to mid twenties, at the most?

JH: That's pretty common. It's not just dragon dancing, either. There's other organizations. There's religious youth organizations where they study about religion. I know the kids from New Orleans East are, some might say, fanatical about the Catholic religion-how they go to church every single day. And it's seen as a very common thing to go to church every single day.

LW: Even among the younger people.

JH: Even among the younger kids-many communities have problems getting their kids to go to church. This one-if they don't go to church that day, they feel kind of weird. It's so part of their routine, everyday life. In the West Bank, you have some communities-the one in Algiers and the one in Avondale-that are kind of like that. The Catholic churches are designated by their locations-Marrero, Avondale, New Orleans East, Algiers-but the temples are designated by their names. For some reason they don't call the temples by their location, Bo De [Chua Bo De Temple, Mahayana Buddhism, Highway 996, New Orleans; religious leader is Thong Duc] or Van-Hanh [Trung Tam Phat Giao Van-Hanh Temple, Mahayana Buddhism, 13152 Chef Menteur Highway, New Orleans; religious leader is "Thay" Thuong Luc]. In Marrero there's a smaller community built around it, but they're much more scattered. So you don't have that "everyday going to church" mentality. But they do other activities, like in the Marrero church it's not uncommon for the boy to be in dragon dance, the girl to be in traditional dancing, both groups to be in the choir, and then the Marrero church also has a band, a brass band. Both groups would be in the brass band also, so it just continues on and on until, I guess, somebody drops and you wait an amount of time and it comes up again.

LW: What kind of music does the band play?

JH: It's mainly two types of music-you have religious music, because they play during church-usually only at special masses like Easter or Christmas. The second is-because the Vietnamese community here is very anti-Communist, to the point where they march and protest and stuff like that-they also do that. They also play southern war music. When I used to play music, there was this rally for the old soldiers and sailors, kind of like a commemoration. Every year, they would have some kind of event like that, and when we would play there, the older Vietnamese generation who came to the U.S. who were part of the war, they got so excited. It brought them to life when they heard that music, and that's part of the reason why the kids do it, too. You see how something so small can [affect other people] like that.

LW: And, of course, to the older people that's no small thing at all.

JH: Yes, it's not small at all! To me, at first, when I was learning to play the music it was, "Well, okay, this isn't bad!" It's definitely upbeat; it sounds almost close to New Orleans second-line, something like that, because essentially all the music was re-written for a brass band. So you're playing and the people are excited, and they're jumping up and down-it's a little hard to describe. We don't always see the significance because we grew up in it, but the others, outsiders, they see this big thing.

LW: So this is traditional Vietnamese music, but it's been arranged for brass band instruments-was the instrumentation different in Vietnam?

JH: Well, the war songs-you're looking at the days of South Vietnam/North Vietnam-it's not uncommon to hear trumpets, like western music. You started seeing a decline of traditional instruments. Here we mostly play with western instruments, so those are all re-arranged to a brass ensemble. But they do play non-Vietnamese music, Christian music, Catholic music-like "Ave Maria" gets rearranged for brass. However the composer who does the arrangement feels at that moment in time, that's what we have to go by. And it's not unusual for us to sit in a practice session and all of a sudden we'll say, "You know, it would sound better if we just added a single clarinet playing at that section," and so, literally, everybody just re-writes the piece together. It's very much reminiscent of New Orleans. We're kind of like the street musicians who are playing in the church.

LW: That sounds like a lot of fun. What is your instrument?

JH: I was different from the other musicians. I started in middle school studying traditional snare drumming. I was the marching band/philharmonic kind of snare drummer. The Asian community in general doesn't really have percussionists, so when they found out that I had formal training in my background, they asked me to join, and so I pretty much-I didn't write all of it, but I kind of came up with the kind of rhythmic patterns that they use in the current music. Some of it was transferred from other composers-I was the only one that knew how drum music was written. So I was the only one who knew how to say, "Look, you can't transpose music for the clarinet to make it look like it's for a drummer."

LW: You had unique music-reading skills for that group.

JH: It just happened to be, because when I grew up, I just had this obsession with drumming for some reason. I had formal training in drumming, and that actually led to the dragon dance, too.

LW: That's exactly what I was wondering.

JH: To give you a reference point-beforehand, the dragon dance used to be dominated by the Buddhist community. It was pretty straightforward-there weren't too many acrobatic moves; you had the occasional lifting of the head, where the person in front is lifted, but many times he was just lifted up to the knees [the dancer at the head of the dragon costume briefly stands on the knees of the other dancer who is at the tail of the costume]. It wasn't taken to the level that it is today. Or just rolling on the ground, or dancing in the fireworks or something like that. Even then, many of the drummers were very sporadic. It was more like "drummer follows the dragon" or, should I say, the lion, because it [the costume] is supposed to be a lion. Then when Tanner [friend of Johnny who was an influential team leader] came along with the Marrero team, they looked at all these videos and studied the videos and started incorporating "lion front flips" and stuff like that-how the lion would run forward and literally just ram the person ahead of him. They went to a choreographed sequence.

This is where the drumming changed a great deal, and I just happened to start at about this time. Because of my background in precision drumming, I was able to coordinate multiple lions, because you wouldn't really have just one lion. The lions, in a choreographed show, they need to know their cues, but they can't hear each other inside the lion [costume]. So the drumming patterns would change; you would hear it in the drums-when the drumming slows down, you would see the lion slow down, or you would hear certain cues, certain combinations of beats, and they know to get ready for this move, or they line up, or sometimes when there's time to fill they will do free-styling. We also started to incorporate break-dancing.

When I started drumming, I studied a lot of different beats. A lot of drummers ask me, how is it that I know so many different beats, that I create so many new beats? And I tell them, "It's all around you." You can listen to a rap song, and you hear that repetitive beat, or you listen to a classical song, and you hear that tempo, you hear a different style drumbeat. Depending on the mood I'm in at any moment, I'm going to generate something new [from many influences]. So a lot of the drummers now that could be considered to be my students, a lot of them listen to music a different way now-especially if they're a drummer. Say you watch a movie-you hear the music and you think about what you can add yourself, try to turn it into something different.

From there, you see the incorporation of high-risk acrobatic moves. We've had people who-small stuff from spraining their ankles to laid out on the ground for a while because they felt like they broke their back or something like that. We've had martial arts incorporated into the shows, break dancing incorporated into the shows. Dragon dance now, it's changed over the last 10 years. It was far more traditional, and now it's traditional mixed with what we grew up with, what we see and hear.

LW: The change in the role of the drummer that you describe sounds as though it's gone from the drummer following the lion, as you say, providing a beat, to actually being a sort of conductor, setting the pace for the dragon or the lion.

JH: It's a major evolution in local dragon dancing. That was one big part of it, when we went from sporadic movements to very defined movements, and in order to control it we had to have some way of subtly announcing it so nobody can tell. So we used the drums.

LW: You're talking to the dragon through-

JH: -the drums.

LW: Can you describe the different roles in a dragon dance performance? How do people perform the roles, and what do the roles signify?

JH: There are different perceptions of the roles depending on what region of the world you go to, but in New Orleans, the lions in general represent power and luck. There's definitely a way they move into and out of a building.

LW: For future readers of this interview, can you describe what a "lion" is?

JH: A lion is a two-person costume, in a sense, a two-person costume that is very colorful. You have this large head, usually made out of papier-maché or something like that, followed by a short tail of anywhere in the range of 6 to 10 feet for the tail.

LW: It is sometimes called a lion and sometimes a dragon, or are they different costumes, because I hear the terms used interchangeably?

JH: Yes, to use the word "dragon" isn't quite right, because the [Chinese, kite-like] dragon is actually the really long one you see, where they have 20 people holding it up by the little poles beneath it [beneath the dragon costume]-that's the dragon part, but nobody does that around here anymore.

LW: Many people use the term "dragon dance," but they are not using the term correctly...?

LW: What they mean is the two-person costume, because that's what we have here.

JH: Yes. Usually you have a smaller guy, thinner, with less upper body strength...

LW: ...and lighter...

JH: ...and somebody lighter, as opposed to the person in the back, at the tail. The tail, for the most part, is bent over. The person in the tail is much stronger, because they have to be able to life the other guy, sometimes throw the other guy, and the two of them communicate together all the time. They whisper or they yell at each other, and many times in practices it's those 2 guys practicing together. It's not a common thing, in a choreographed show, to mix in a new partner in the middle of it, because they won't know each other's roles or be comfortable with one another.

LW: That would show [smiles]...

JH: [laughing] It definitely does! When you see the free-style part, you see the sporadic moves of the olden days as opposed to what you see today. The drummer sets the tempo; in essence it's [like this]-think of the lion's heartbeat; it goes faster, it gets more exciting; slower, it gets a little drowsy like it's getting ready to go to sleep, things like that.

The cymbal player or the gong player, they complement the drummer. Many times, the best beats I've ever heard came from a very good coordination between a gong, a cymbal, and a drummer. Many times today you see only the drummer because that's the most important part of the three. It's very rare now to see a gong player. Many times a cymbal player is just some guy who isn't tired. Unlike the drum that's on the ground or on some kind of cart, you have to hold the cymbals the entire time. Many times the cymbal player is the backup drummer who's not too tired, or somebody who decided to fill in for a little while.

LW: What about the other roles in the performance? You have the musicians and you have the costumed attendants who...

JH: The monkey is highly acrobatic, incorporating martial arts-you usually see him in a monkey outfit, from head to toe, with a bow-I guess [you would call it] a staff-and he usually is going around doing all kinds of martial arts moves, and they also direct the lions.

When, for whatever reason, there's miscommunication between the drummer and the lion, such as at a very noisy place, it's the job of the monkey and the one we call "the Fat Guy" [laughs] to communicate and relay the information. I'm not sure how to translate the Fat Guy from Vietnamese to English, but he kind of represents luck, prosperity; he clowns around with the crowd. He runs around. A trend that I see is, if it's a large crowd, they'll usually run up to, A, a girl, or B, a little kid. [laughs] A, to hit on the girl, or B, to play around with a little kid, get the kids excited a little. And the monkey fills that role too.

The focus so much is on the lions that the monkey kind of practices on his own, and the Fat Guy practices on his own. It's only during the dress rehearsal that they actually do it all together, because, outside of a very few traditional rules to dragon dancing, they really can do anything on their own.

LW: Is it too simplistic to say that the monkey kind of shepherds the lion and the Fat Guy shepherds the crowd, brings the crowd into the performance?

JH: Traditionally that's kind of how it's supposed to be. Given today's teams, it's very common not to even have a monkey in there, because there's not enough people. Being in the lions [in the lion costume] is so tiring. The fat guy role is not so acrobatic; he doesn't have to do anything in particular. But nowadays we employ him to be the break-dancer, so he's the one doing the break-dancing now-it's between him and the monkey [laughs].

I came out of the Marrero group on the West bank; it kind of encompasses Marrero, Westwego, Harvey, some of Gretna-that Vietnamese community is a little spread out. I started out with them.I had intended to retire 2 years before Katrina, but my friend had started a team with the temple in New Orleans East and he was telling me that they were doing shows and he was so tired and needed some help. So I said, "Okay, I'll help you out till you can find somebody." So I went over there; [with a smile] it was kind of like a free-agency move or something like that.

LW: That's Van Hanh?

JH: Van-Hanh.

LW: So you went from doing the dances with a Catholic community to doing them with a Buddhist community.

JH: Yeah; it's weird-a Catholic West Bank community to a New Orleans East Buddhist community. Between the Catholic church on the West Bank and the Catholic church on the East bank there's this unspoken rivalry. Not to mention between the temples against the Catholics there's also this unspoken rivalry, so I went across 2 borders when I did that. It didn't cause any problems or anything like that. Between us kids, it's just like, we're with our friends; we're just performing.

LW: A friendly rivalry

JH: Yeah; it's just friendly rivalry. The friendly rivalry is what made the teams what they are now. Every year-this is little-known unless you are specifically tied in with the teams, so I'll give you a little background. There are 4 major teams-the 2 temple teams, there's the Marrero team, then there's the New Orleans East team, with the New Orleans East church. Two minor teams are Algiers with the Algiers church and Avondale with the Avondale church.

But out of the 4 major teams, 3 of them-the 2 temple teams and the Marrero-one time a year, every New Year, perform at one place together. It started because the [local business owners] wanted to invite all the teams; they didn't want to say "no" to any team that wanted to perform. So you started getting 3 rival teams together performing at about the same time, one after the other, just lining up to perform. And that's where we learned to improve our drumming, learned to improve our performances because, when we showed up there, we wanted to be the best. We wanted to be flawless. It's little-known, but it's kind of like New Orleans' only competition; New Orleans' own informal competition.

The [first one after Hurricane Katrina] is probably, by far, the best thing I've ever seen. Mostly un-choreographed; last-minute choreography between the 2 teams, because we didn't want to overlap drumbeats and overlap performers. So you have this massive show, easily a few thousand people in the crowd, and you have a New Orleans East community. You saw, in that performance, how tightly the whole community is bound now, after Katrina. Everybody, all the little kids were so excited, you had the lions breathing fire and dancing with high acrobatic moves. [laughs] The community really came together after Katrina.

LW: You're modest about it, but it sounds to me as though maintaining the tradition and keeping the culture alive are also very important to you. Can you talk about that a little bit?

JH: It is. It's just that unspoken commitment that we have for our community. It's just like a family. When the parents aren't able to do something, it's up to the next generation to take over. In this case, the parents don't do dragon dancing any more, so it's our job to prepare the next group to do it. We don't want it lost. It's something very unique to us, and here in New Orleans I don't know of anybody outside the Vietnamese community that does it. The Chinese community asked the Vietnamese community to perform for them.

It's humbling, especially when [festivals or non-Asian groups hire the performers], we think, "Is this something bigger than we expected it to be?" This is a way to keep the younger kids close together, to keep them bound together-keep them out of trouble, also. When they're at the church practicing, they're not at home just sitting and playing video games or doing something stupid who-knows-where. They look up to us, and we realize it when we're performing and they're standing next to us, and just staring at us. Subconsciously, it takes on meaning.

In the Vietnamese community, everybody is addressed as "older brother," "older sister," "younger sibling," and so on. There's always a hierarchy. We knew that the people who came before us took care of things, and we sure as hell aren't going to drop it on our watch. So we make sure we pass it on to the next generation with no problem. Actually, right now there is a little problem. With so many people scattered after Katrina, there's a little problem getting manpower, getting enough people for a team. But if we get past this hump, everything should be fine for the future. But it's unspoken within the community-you take care of those younger than you. You do whatever you can. That's what we've been doing; that's what we're trying to do.

LW: When you're performing, are you conscious of that-of being a keeper of the culture, and the importance that has to the people who are watching and listening to you?

JH: It depends on who we're performing for; that's the big thing. ...It's always fun to perform for little kids, especially when they're not too scared. That's always fun. But I guess when we notice the pressure the most is when we perform in front of another team. . . . We don't want to disappoint our own team; we want to represent our own team-make sure everything is as best as we can perform. And it also allows us to trade with one another. An example would be drumbeats. It's an unspoken rule that you don't take another team's drumbeats. So any drumbeats I created with this team stay with that team. You're not supposed to regenerate that drumbeat anywhere else.

The conversation goes on to cover the dance costume; the Vietnamese neighborhoods; churches, and temples; other activities in which young people take part; religious and language instruction; and technical aspects of dance and musicianship.

LW: What have I not asked you about dance that people should know?

JH: Well, that girls can do it.

LW: Have you ever seen a girl do it?

JH: Yes. It's just so out of the ordinary. But for guys to dominate it for so long and say that girls aren't allowed to do it isn't right. Matter of fact, [some guys] welcome girls to do it. There's female lions; they're the really furry ones. Instead of the colorful ones, they're just really furry and they just run around, roll around, kind of like a little puppy. Three girls I went to school with have performed for the temple. The performances weren't done to impress people outside the Vietnamese community.

LW: We've spoken about the role of lion dancing in the culture and in the community. Can you say a few words about this?

JH: It's more just for the preservation of the community, the preservation of culture. No matter what happens outside the community, in the metro New Orleans area, as long as those churches are there, as long as those temples are there, as long as they have the commitment between the generations, as far as I can tell, it's going to keep continuing. About 2 months ago, 2 kids approached me and asked if I would be willing to assist them in starting a new team. Kids are definitely interested; no matter what happens, they are going to keep on doing it.

Laura Westbrook is a folklorist in New Orleans and was a Regional Folklorist at the University of New Orleans. She prepared this essay in 2009 as part of the New Populations Project.