Miranda Jeyaretnam, Contributing Photographer

The Southeast Asian Spring Festival created a space where Southeast Asian students at Yale could celebrate, share and learn from each other’s cultures.

Over 50 students, faculty, staff and family members gathered in Luce Hall on March 31 for the festival. Attendees enjoyed a buffet of Southeast Asian foods — including Thai green curry, Vietnamese chicken salad and Indonesian satay — before watching a slate of musical and dance performances. The event opened with remarks by Erik Harms, chair of the Yale Council on Southeast Asia Studies, and was emceed by Resty Fufunan ’24 and Dinny Risri Aletheiani, who also serves on the council and teaches Indonesian language studies.

The annual Spring Festival began in 2003, and this year’s edition was the first after a three-year hiatus due to COVID-19.

“I grew up [in] and come from a context where people know these dances,” Fufunan told the News. “I think it’s been pretty lonely and isolating to be at Yale and be on a campus where sometimes I’m the only one that knows these dances or knows these cultures. I was just excited to have a space to share that, to have other people learn, and to have other people excited about it in the same way that I am.”

Fufunan led the first performance of the night with two versions of Alitaptap. The folk dance, which comes from the province of Batangas in the Philippines, is typically performed between partners and is meant to mimic the movement of a firefly. Fufunan — whose performance was also part of a final project for an Ethnicity, Race & Migration class — choreographed a version that could be performed alone but otherwise followed the same traditional music and movements.

The second version was originally arranged by Barkada, the University of Illinois Urbana-Campaign’s Filipino Student Association cultural group. This rendition of the dance combines the traditional steps of Alitaptap with some Western-inspired movements. Set to music from a more Southern Philippines tradition, Fufunan described its tone as “somber” because the dance is meant to mourn the death of a princess.

“I chose those two dances because I wanted to provide a contrast of what Filipino cultural dancing is and how it has also been interpreted by the diaspora,” Fufunan said.

Fufunan later performed alongside Courtney Li ’24 and Thuyen Vu ’24 in a hip hop dance to “Vapor Rub” by Vietnamese-American artist Thuy.

Students in the Viet 120 and Viet 142 language classes sang “Bèo Dạt Mây Trôi,” a song from northern Vietnam that tells the story of a woman longing for her husband who is away at war. 

The theme of love continued with a performance of the Vietnamese fan dance by the Yale Vietnamese Student Association. Melanie Nguyen ’25, Ngoc-Lynn Huynh ’25, Trucy Truong-Phan ’25, Anh Nguyen ’26 and Valentina Pham ’24 wore áo dàis — the traditional dress of Vietnam — and fluttered Vietnamese dance fans to a song about how soulmates will find their way together in the end.

In a performance of the Manorah dance, a traditional dance from Laos, local Connecticut dancer Nina Sayarath reenacted the story of prince Suthon and his lover Manorah, who is a half-woman, half-bird. The dance, which was choreographed for the festival by Ann Cunningham, is meant to be a farewell dance to the prince, before Manorah flies into the jungle to flee capture by a jealous court counselor. Cunningham, a member of the Laotian community in Connecticut, has been teaching Lao traditional dance for over ten years.

Aletheiani choreographed and performed an Indonesian street dance, donning a Topeng, an Indonesian dance mask, and bringing an audience member on stage to dance with her. She performed to the tune of Riana Heath MUS ’23 who played the violin. 

“I had so much [fun] performing and collaborating with my co-performer, Riana Heath, a graduate student at the Yale School of Music,” Aletheiani wrote in an email to the News. “Our performance … embodies our classical trainings in dance and music, and diasporic influences and art makings we have.”

Aletheiani, who is the director of the Southeast Asian language studies program, has been performing since she was 7 years old. She began on neighborhood event stages in Indonesia and later danced professionally in theaters, ceremonial events and social events across the world. In the process of putting together this performance with Heath, she underscored their goal of sharing the “diversities and complexities of Indonesian musing, songs, and cultures,” which propelled them to include three songs from different Indonesian music genres.

Aletheiani, program manager for the Council Ei Ei Khin, Indriyo Sukmono, who teaches Indonesian language courses, and Quang Phu Van, who teaches Vietnamese language studies, were the main organizers of this year’s festival.

Harms told the News that Aletheiani and Heath’s blend of the traditional and the contemporary made a “lasting impression” on him.

Adel Malau, a Fulbright language assistant, led another Indonesian dance, Indang Baindangkan, which was the final performance of the night. Maddy Zavalick ’26, Zach Lipsher ’26, Ella Michael ’25 and Rumman Rahman ’25 performed alongside her. At the entrance to the hall, Trang Thuy Pham, who is also a Fulbright language assistant, arranged a display table featuring Vietnamese cultural items, including Vietnamese coffee.

Harms noted that the various performances and speeches of the night underscored how Southeast Asia is “complex and dynamic,” pointing in particular to Kasama’s, the Filipinx Club at Yale, speech. During the speech, Mahal Montes ’25, Ava Estacio-Touhey ’25, Bienn Viquiera ’24, Pia Gorme ’23, Patricia Joseph ’26 and Fufunan emphasized the diversity of languages and identities in the Philippine archipelago, speaking in different regional languages, including Tagalog, Ilocano and Visayan.

Tagalog, one of the official languages of the Philippines, is the mother tongue for nearly 25 percent of the population, but Montes noted that there are 186 other languages spoken across the country.

Khin, who stepped into the role of program manager at the Council five months ago, told the News that they tried to make the festival inclusive of both Yale and Connecticut communities. They specifically chose to cater food for the buffet from small businesses with “quality authentic Southeast Asian foods.” New Haven restaurants Basil and Toka Asian Kitchen, Shatang Thai and Sri Thai in West Haven and VN Pho in Hartford provided most of the food. Khin and members of the Vietnamese community in New Haven also contributed food and desserts.

Khin, who is originally from Myanmar, added that the festival is meant to cultivate a “sense of belonging,” especially as communities across New Haven and Yale organized and attended the event.

Harms told the News that the Council’s goal is to diversify the curricula and Southeast Asian language offerings at Yale.

“Students and scholars from Southeast Asia or with Southeast Asian backgrounds are dramatically underrepresented in university campuses, not just at Yale but across the US, which is a shame because the region is home to some of the most dynamic economies, most important forms of cultural and ecological diversity and much more,” Harms wrote in an email to the News. “It is also full of brave people who resist all forms of injustice–from histories of colonial rule to forms of authoritarianism, Southeast Asians have always been on the forefront of speaking justice to power.”

He plans to push for more faculty hiring more focus on scholarship from Southeast Asia, an expansion of Southeast Asian language classes and more opportunities for “studying in the region, leading to world class senior theses, dissertations, and more.” Last week, Harvard announced that it would offer a language course in Tagalog, which led to Yale students calling for the University to do the same.

In addition to funding Southeast Asian courses, Fufunan said that he also hopes that there will be continued support for student programming and the Southeast Asian student body.

Hongyi Shen ’24, co-president of the Malaysian and Singaporean Association, told the News that as an international student from Southeast Asia, she often finds her perspective slipping into her engagement with campus and her classes. She noted that the Council’s work to “understand and represent” Southeast Asian culture fills a gap that can be challenging for student groups to do alone, given other pressures in school.

Shen, who spoke at the festival about MASA’s mission, told the News that MASA’s main goal is to “provide a home away from home.”

“It may be eating food from home together, but also just a space where [your] common experiences don’t need to be explained … or legible to an American audience but will just be understood,” Shen wrote.

The Council on Southeast Asian Studies was established in 1947 as the first program for the study of Southeast Asia in the US.

Miranda Jeyaretnam is the University desk editor. She previously covered the Jackson Institute of Global Affairs and developments at the National University of Singapore and Yale-NUS. Formerly the opinion editor under the YDN Board of 2022, she co-founded the News' Editorial Board and wrote for her opinion column 'Crossing the Aisle' in 2019-20. From Singapore, she is a junior in Pierson College, majoring in English.