It’s 9:05 p.m. on Monday, and Tina Chong ’03, teasingly described by her friends as “the slave master,” is whipping around the room, clearing out the tattered table and chairs from a room in the Asian American Cultural Center. One by one, students trickle into the emptied space, filling it with a rich buzz of jokes, greetings, cheerful sounds of Korean language, and the ordinary:
“Where is everyone?”
Seamlessly and without a cue, each person picks up one of the hourglass and cylindrical-shaped Korean drums scattered around the edge of the room. “I taught them that,” says Brian Han ’03, as he proudly watches three freshmen practicing their beats.
Then David An ’03 bangs the kwaenggari, the little gong, and the room vibrates with the signal to commence practice. At first there is awkwardness as some of the nine freshmen stumble as they dance past each other in the small room. Chong, Han and An, the three leaders, set the example by the firmness of their beats and the confidence of their steps.
Yale cultural performance groups like UNITY, the Korean Percussion and Dance Troupe, are thriving in artistic fields, despite the mainstream dance, theater and singing groups that have owned the Yale spotlight for decades. The Yale Slavic Chorus recorded a CD and last May toured Bulgaria, surprising locals with their knowledge of traditional music. The Bhangra Society, an Indian dance group, has for the last two years been selected to compete at the top national intercollegiate competition, Bhangra Blowout.
A decade ago, most of these groups did not exist. Only a few years ago, some inspired souls decided to act on their interest, whether by purchasing an instructional videotape or by digging into their own pockets for the project. Since then, the dedicated members of these groups have been playing with tradition — mastering it, recreating it and sharing it with others in and out of their own cultural groups.
“It was something I always wanted to do,” said An, the musical director of UNITY this year. The group, sitting around and chatting at the Asian American House before the meeting, echoed that they had always wanted to play the Korean drums but never had the chance to do so in depth.
“We’re really tight,” added Chong. “It’s like a family.”
As in a family, the older members of UNITY help out the new members for the group, most of whom have picked up the Korean drums for the first time at Yale. The group has no instructors. For them to continue, the knowledge must be passed down from one generation to the next.
“That’s how they do it in Korea,” An said.
Yale Slavic Chorus, a women’s choir that specializes in peasant folk songs from Eastern Europe, treasures their 30 years of “ongoing institutional memory” in helping them learn songs in different original languages.
The communal learning also provides students with a comfortable atmosphere to satisfy their curiosities without a need for prior experience or the stress of auditions.
“None of us had any training in this kind of dancing,” said Leonora Anzaldua Burke ’03, the head of Ballet Folklorico, a traditional Mexican dance troupe, currently practicing with seven members. “The advantage of being in such a small group is that you get one-on-one time with the instructor.”
Ballet Folklorico, now the only cultural performance group with a professional instructor, started in 1998 with a group of passionate students and an instructional videotape. The students were attempting to follow the tape when a woman knocked on the door of La Casa Cultural, the Latino Cultural Center, to ask for directions. It was Margarita Fernandez-Letkowski, a former Mexican professional dancer, who immediately agreed to coach the group.
Since then, Fernandez-Letkowski has taught Ballet Folklorico dances from a variety of regions, helped them purchase costumes from Mexico, and lined up performances for them all over Connecticut.
“There’s lots of history in the dances,” Anzaldua Burke said. “It’s not something that we choreographed. They are centuries old.”
But sometimes, even traditions can be reworked into new experiences. When the Bhangra Society formed three years ago, the group learned strictly traditional routines from videos and prior knowledge. That year, after traveling together to watch the Bhangra Blowout, an annual competition held at George Washington University in the spring, the group decided to mix hip-hop beats into their music and spice up their costumes. They then picked and trained their first Bhangra team and for the last two years have been dazzling spectators at the competition.
“I like the traditional elements of bhangra, but my mentality is to incorporate the hip-hop,” said Parin Parikh ’02, this year’s choreographer. “We want to capture the social cultural melting point that occurs.”
This cultural fusion is also captured by Jook Songs, an Asian-American playwriting and performance group. Through its three-hour weekly workshops, the group builds a trusting relationship where each person, regardless of their theatrical experience, learns to develop a script that reflects their personal experiences. The content of their last show varied from first love, to racism, to dealing with death.
Liana Chang ’02, the artistic director, expressed how Jook Songs gives Asian Americans a channel into theater.
“There’s the reality that an Asian-American guy isn’t likely to get [to play] Hamlet,” she said. But both Chang and Eric Huang, the artistic advisor, stress that unlike regular theater, Jook Songs is, in Huang’s words, “an opportunity for students to be honest on stage.”
“It helps demystify Asian stereotypes,” said Huang. “It allows other people to see that every person can tell their story and that they can relate.”
If the audience turnout is an accurate indication of success, Jook Songs is doing well. In all, 150 people attended their last Friday and Saturday night shows. About 70 percent in the audience were Asians, according to Chang.
“People came up after the show and related to my experience,” said Jessica Chen ’03, sitting on the floor of Chang’s cozy apartment and reflecting on the performance, in which she wrote about female body image. “One girl was crying. She was so touched.”
While cultural performance groups have a hard time recruiting people from outside their ethnicities into the groups, they have been successful in reaching out to diverse audiences.
“People come and it’s really fun, and the music is really unusual,” Megan Dean ’03 said of the audience at Yale Slavic Chorus shows. “You can bring this whole cultural side and something unique to the students. We wear the regional costumes, and we have a stronger educational plug when looking for audiences.”
“Our cultural shows here attract a broad base,” Parikh said about the South Asian Society performances in which the Bhangra team dances. “Bhangra has an infectious beat.” So infectious that James Stevens ’03 admitted to having danced the whole way back after attending one of their shows.
The Yale experience, as we’ve been told many times, is about exploring new interests and taking advantage of the rare opportunities. The cultural performance groups have catapulted into the limelight from small beginnings because they provide a forum for communal learning, the rare chance for people from various cultures to get in touch with their identities through different forms of art.
This year, UNITY is celebrating its 10th anniversary with visions of replacing its costumes, going on tour, and adding new acrobatics to the dances.
“Ideally, someone would learn it and keep it alive for the next generation,” said Chong.
What the freshmen are doing now at the UNITY practices is precisely that — passing down the tradition. By 9:30 p.m., the group is in the heat of practice. The room palpitates with th
e beats. Everyone is engrossed in the rhythms, and it doesn’t matter anymore that there is no room for the drummers to weave in and out of lines and spirals. The sounds bellow and crescendo to their magnificent end.
Then the tension is released, and laughter and words of encouragement rush into the room again.