"It's a completely different style of dancing than American dance," explains 22-year-old Justin Thang, sitting in the living room/makeshift dance studio of his south side home surrounded by several of his friends, who all share the same dark hair and dark eyes. "It's not shaking--it's moving. And the music is different too; it's a lot more traditional," he says.
"More cool," 17-year-old Vinnie Sang adds in jest. Wearing dark jeans and a messy faux hawk, the teenager seems to know a thing or two about cool.
- Kerry Jessup
- Hope for Tomorrow members gather in the home of group leader, Justin Thang, to practice traditional Burmese dance.
They are talking about traditional Chin-Burmese dance. Chin is one of many ethnic groups that inhabit the war torn nation of Burma (Myanmar), and are the primary inhabitants of Chin State--the poorest, most underdeveloped state in the nation, with an unemployment rate of about 73%. Though they are not the only Burmese refugee population in Indianapolis, Chin people do make up a vast majority of refugees settled in our city every year.
In 2008, Thang and a few of his friends, all young Chin refugees, formed a cultural dance group which performed and competed at local festivals and national competitions. Each part of their routines is a display of traditional Chin culture. Traditional music is fairly easy to come by on the internet and in iTunes, but the costumes are a bit more difficult to obtain. For the men, traditional Chin dance attire looks very similar to more formal Western wear--black pants and white, button-down shirts--with a few embellishments like large sashes and head bands. Women's costumes are typically much more ornate and difficult to come by outside Burma.
"For women, a traditional handmade costume, including everything like the jewelry, would cost $10,000 or something," Thang explains. "Right now, we borrow our ethnic clothes from our parents. The ones [ladies' dresses] we have now maybe cost $200. Maybe if we had more funds we would like to buy our own someday."
- Kerry Jessup
- Hope for Tomorrow is dressed in full costume for the 65th Annual National Chin Day performance.
Once they settle the issues of music and costumes, the group still has its most basic element to contend with--the dance routines. Because there are very limited resources for Chin dance in the Midwestern U.S., the group has had to piece together their own routines from older relatives, YouTube videos, and whatever they remember from home. "Most of the kids growing up here will never see a traditional dance," Thang explains. "So how we learn about the dance is we get video clips, ask older people, ask our parents. We are our own teachers!"
Their arrangement certainly lacks the convenience that having an instructor would provide, but they don't seem to mind. "Having a regular teacher, yeah that would be nice, but we want to create our own style, and we want to learn by ourselves," Thang says. Creating their own style and dance routines has paid off, as they have managed to win a couple of trophies from national competitions.
"We went to the Chin New Year Festival in Atlanta, Georgia in 2010 and won first place," he says, pointing to a small trophy on his mantle. "But we went to [the] 2012 Chin New Year in Michigan, and only won third place," he says, pointing to a slightly larger trophy. After a few years, and a few trophies, they decided to expand their group and make it more about their culture than competition, getting a bit more professional in the process.
- Kerry Jessup
- Hope for Tomorrow poses with trophies they have won at national contests.
"Justin came to our house and started asking our parents for permissions and they had to sign papers," 14-year-old David Bawi explains. "He called us and told us we were going to have a meeting someplace else. We thought, 'meeting? That's for old people!'"
While it's true that many of the members are barely out of high school, they are attempting to establish not only a professional dance group, but a support system to the Chin people who are still living in a war torn country. They started by creating a name: Hope for Tomorrow.
"Right now, we are collecting money. Anyone who doesn't have a job, like the kids, the high schoolers, they pay only five bucks a month," Thang explains. "Me and the other kids who are older and have jobs, we pay fifty dollars if we can. We collect that money and send it back to Burma."
As the subject moves from dance routines and competitions, it is easy to see the compassion and dedication of every young face in the room. "There are a lot of kids like us [in Burma] who don't have jobs, who don't even know what hope is," he says. "They just live in small villages. When they wake up in the morning they just see their house, their village: that's all they can see. But we want to tell them, 'Your people are in America. You can do better. You need to have hope.'"
- Kerry Jessup
As he speaks, everyone nods in agreement, and 14-year-old Elly Mawi explains that the Chin youth abroad are not the only group they are hoping to reach out to. "Mostly I want to help the young children from Burma [living here]. We know how it feels to be new and know nothing. I want them to know we are here to support them," she says.
Though she is only fourteen, she has a compassion for her fellow refugees that is very mature. She speaks hurriedly and excitedly about her goals for the group: "I want people to look at us and say, 'They're trying for their children; they're trying for their people. We should look up to them and copy what they do.'"
Bawi adds to her comments, "We aren't afraid of who we are. You know, at school, there are ethnic differences and everything. But we want to show them and encourage them that it's okay to be different."
The group hopes to recruit even more individuals from the refugee population to help their efforts. "Right now, we maybe only have around two hundred dollars, but one day we hope we'll have a lot of money and partnerships or sponsorships so we can help," Thang explains.
When they are done talking about their hopes, dreams, and mission of the group, someone pushes furniture aside so they can have space to practice on the carpeted living room floor. Arms up, faces intent, and bodies moving in near perfect unison, six pairs of feet stamp out a slightly muffled rhythm of hope for their people, wherever they are in the world.
- Kerry Jessup