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Vietnamese celebration brings community together
Performers blend traditional and modern influences
Tommy Tran gets a close look at a lion costume during the Vietnamese New Year celebration Sunday at the First Baptist Church. - photo by Tom Reed

Blending tradition and modernity, the Vietnamese ministry at the First Baptist Church of Gainesville celebrated the passing of another year Sunday.

Teenagers sang over modern pop music while incorporating traditional dances, and native Vietnamese performed songs from their heritage without instruments.

The Tet Nguyen Dan, the Vietnamese name for the celebration, culminated with a performance of a lion dance by students of the Quang Trung Martial Arts Institute in Forest Park.

Teams of dancers wearing vivid costumes designed to imitate lions danced throughout and around the audience as other students mimicked their motions by striking drums and cymbals. The lions sported vivid colors and elaborate patterns while firecrackers burst on stage.

"The lions represent good luck coming in for the new year," said student Peter Nguyen. "They scare away bad spirits and ominous feelings in the atmosphere. Those are the firecrackers."

The students train for two hours each weekend to prepare for the dance. The rhythmic music requires precise timing and organization, and the dance itself is physically taxing and involves many different forms found in the martial arts they practice.

"Many of the actual dancers have earned black belts," student Priscilla Do said.

Do, who used to be one of the dancers, played the main drum during the second half of the dance.

"I liked the dancing," she said, "but the drums are more fun for me."

The point of it all is to help children discover their cultural heritage and let adults celebrate their ancestry, said the Rev. Joe Tu, leader of the congregation.

While he is both American and Christian, Tu stresses that he is "still Vietnamese."

Born in Vietnam, he wants to share what he was taught with the new generations of Vietnamese-Americans.

This is all a representation of their traditions, though, since this still was a Christian celebration of a Vietnamese holiday.

"We don't do any of the ancestor worship that's traditionally a part of the ceremony," Tu said. "We worship God, so those parts represent him instead of our ancestors."

One of these elements is banh chung, a Vietnamese rice cake that is considered an essential part of any of these celebrations. It was served during the buffet-style feast after the dancing ended a reminder of God.

For the congregation, however, there is more to the celebration than impressive displays and devout beliefs.

Henry Pham, who moved from Vietnam to the United States 27 years ago, sang a traditional Vietnamese solo acappella piece as part of the celebration, but he focused on how it affected the community instead.

"They asked me to help sing four to five years ago," Pham said, "and I wanted to help out the Gainesville community."


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