What might the greatest center for Lao American traditional dance and music look like? For many, this seems as impossible a question as going to the moon.
Presently, our community faces a deeply internalized sense of despair and denial. There is a virulent pessimism that there could ever be sustained support for one, let alone many, schools across the United States for the Lao performing arts. The premise is often dismissed by even the most educated among our community builders. Who would support a space for 230,000+ refugees to work together impart the best of our traditions that we’d previously passed on to one another since the 1300s? How would you sustain it? How quixotic.
To those with a defeatist mindset, it is irrelevant to point out that there are ballet schools and schools dedicated to ballroom dance, jazz dance, tap, and contemporary and modern dance all across the US. At Lao gatherings, many advise us to be content just to practice and perform a mere handful of our dances. Be satisfied with two or three performances a year at New Years distilling the arts of a 600-year old culture. At the same time, we hear parents and elders lamenting that their children are forgetting their culture, their heritage and customs. They do not see the contradiction.
But far worse, they do not dare to try in a time when so many of us have nothing left to lose in sharing our arts and ideas with the world.
What would be necessary for us to create exceptional schools? Ones that draw together some of the finest teachers, students and families in rebuilding a Lao American performing arts tradition? This won’t be easy. But it’s not necessarily impossible, if we understand what we are trying to build.
Demographically speaking, a city with approximately 7,000 to 10,000 Lao within 30 minutes is among the most likely to create a sustainable space. The school will ideally begin with at least two training tracks that provide opportunities for both developing artists and performing artists.
In the 20th century, the war killed, maimed and displaced over half a million people. 40 years later, as many as a third continue to live at or near the federal poverty level. A significant number are women who are widows, the elderly and single mothers with limited education and low English fluency. Nearly 50% of Laotian refugees are under 18, and less than 7% have bachelor’s degrees. Less than 1 out of 100 have an advanced degree particularly among Lao women. Many face challenges of untreated PTSD. There is a case to be made that a school available to train youth and families in the performing arts may expand opportunities for academic, professional and civic engagement and lifelong success.
If we did well, and understood how to develop these schools we will probably see 5 main regional schools, each with their own curriculum, lead instructors, and philosophy for dance (traditional, experimental, mixed methods, etc.) In the best case scenario, the success of the performing arts students and their teachers in popularizing Lao dance and demonstrations would allow instructors to set up their own smaller studios in communities that don’t have quite the same numbers or interest in the performing arts.
Over the years, those who participate in the developing artists track (typically for students between 3-14) and show the greatest skill, curiosity and joy will go on to join the performing artists (typically from 9-adult) who present in a professional capacity beyond the traditional Lao events.
Successful performing artists will go on to work together with their instructors to provide almost year-round performances of both traditional works and new works that expand our understanding of who the Lao have been, and who we will become as Lao Americans.
Participants develop unique interpersonal skills, confidence and abilities as community advocates with a strong sense of personal integrity and character, academic curiosity and open-mindedness, resiliency and stress management, and verbal and non-verbal communication, the importance of physical and mental health, and intergenerational teamwork. The program provides a key alternative to delinquency and provides peer support networks, reducing exposure to drugs, alcohol and tobacco abuse or gang involvement and early teen pregnancy.
To fully succeed, the Lao American performing artist must learn to become deeply versatile and knowledgeable of many different dance and music forms. In time, they will choose to become a generalist or a specialist. Ideally, our artistic infrastructure will grow to accommodate both approaches.
They will deepen their skills in such a way that they become confident and knowledgeable advocates for their community. Our artists will feel supported and empowered to design their own programs and performance productions in college and beyond.
The instructors in the Lao American schools of performing arts will work with the emerging artists to push themselves to embrace their heritage and to rethink what we will preserve for the next generation. They will not be content with mere repetition, but genuine experimentation and conversation with our arts, and what we can say to our fellow Lao around the world, and to those who are not Lao.
The instructors will be among the leading figures to help community members understand how the Laotian culture embraces over 60 diverse ethnic groups with distinctive artistic traditions. This includes dance forms collectively known as fon phun muang. Most dances emerge as expressions of Buddhist teachings and mythologies. The best-known forms are precise, stylized movements based on classical Buddhist mudra gestures.
Instructors will show how the classical dances and songs express cultural values of compassion, the search for enlightenment, education, truth and the building of community, the rejection of greed, hate, conflict and interpersonal violence. They also value nature, the environment and the appreciation of beauty and the arts. The curriculum will provide a rigorous engagement with these dances and musical compositions that constitute a body of nearly 700 years of intergenerational dialogue regarding the Laotian identity and values.
Performance and training in traditional Laotian arts provides unique intergenerational interaction opportunities. They are ways to exchange information formally and informally to assess community needs. The arts provide an alternative to gang culture and delinquency, teaching Laotian youth discipline and self-empowerment, healthy exercise and dietary habits, creative problem solving skills, collaborative teamwork skills, stress reduction as well as education in history and expertise in verbal and non-verbal expression in public settings. The traditional arts organize and engage community members of diverse cultural, educational and class backgrounds.
Proper training in the traditional arts expands youth leadership capacity and trains community advocates to have a well-rounded knowledge of community issues and opportunities. Researchers and community service agencies are able to effectively reach Laotian refugees and their allies at performances in two-way dialogues when properly connected to these opportunities.
Ideally, the instructors will have the opportunity throughout the year to tutor and train the trainers in other cities, to experiment, innovate and document both classic and new works.
Sustainable Philosophy and Curriculum:
In order to know who we are as a community, we have to have an understanding of who others are, too. Laos is presently composed of 17 provinces and over 60 ethnic groups. So, much work is needed to document both the traditional dances and the newer dances coming from these communities. We also will see the development of Lao American responses to the newer dance forms we see from our neighbors who have roots in African, Latin@, European, Hip-Hop and Indigenous traditions, as well as other dance traditions from Asia. There are many routes, many ways to be Lao American. For those who hear the calling to the arts, the schools we establish for them ought to be committed to the very best training and resources we can provide them.
The ambition will be to present a mix of the classics of Lao and Southeast Asian literature, and newer works, so that everyone in those communities sees it at least thrice in their lifetimes: Once as a youth, once as an adult, once as an elder. These would include performances of Sinxay, of Phra Lak Phra Lam, or Kalaket, Phadaeng Nang Ai, Phaya Khankaak, Xieng Mieng, Keo Na Ma, or Manola and Sithong. But there are many more to consider as possibilities.
The annual schedule of a Lao American music and arts school would include Fall (December) and Spring (March) showcases and recitals. February and May would typically be the time for vocal showcases of Lao, English and other language performances. April would include a variety of public performances to mark the New Year.
From June through August, summer shows and camps would be a part of the school’s offerings. The school would also likely have a traditional fundraising gala with master performers. The school will also provide access to mentors, coaches, and private lessons for those who want to take their work to a particular professional point.
Funding and Budgetary Concerns:
Based on figures for long-running, established institutions doing similar work in mainstream communities, we might do well to anticipate a need of $1,250,000 annually to cover typical expenses for a good school each year. Various factors will affect the final budget for the community.
But before community members balk at $1,250,000 as a budget, bear in mind that this works out technically to about $125/year per person in a 10,000 person sized community. Obviously, not all 10,000 Lao in a state/city donate or support the school like that year in, year out. But if structured as a tax-deductible non-profit properly, with good accountability, in some states they may be able to tap into substantial resources to support at least 25% to 30% of the school costs, with the remainder being made up by tuition, admission fees, contracts, and corporate sponsorships. In the initial years, many of the schools will seek approximately $100,000 to $500,000 for a budget with a plan to move into a better facility in 10 years.
We would need to factor in the the national average for a dance teacher’s salary is approximately $49,928. In many states that’s not a lot to live on, but some may be able to make it work. In the first few years, it will probably take significant work to get salaries to even 1/2 that for the top instructors, but I think it’d be a good benchmark for success. Not the only one, but a target.
In the very near future, Lao American culture will come to a point where it will have to make a decision about how it genuinely supports their artistic tradition.
How many times in our lives will we truly see traditional and even modern performances as they’re meant to be seen? Without making an effort today, how many other classics of our heritage will we see lost, spoken of only in abstraction?
This is far from an easy conversation. There are some who might ask if Lao culture might benefit from removing all dance and art from our community to instead focus on development in STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics or entrepreneurship, medicine, law, real estate or other fields of human endeavor. But this overview is presented as a possible route some of us can commit our efforts. What are the challenges you see, and what are the unique opportunities ahead as we approach 50 years in the US in 2025?