The dance of life

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Thai women in the northern mountainous provinces perform xoe vong (dancing in circle)

Without xoe, rice will not grow

Without xoe, the flower will wither

Without xoe, boys and girls will not become couples

The poem eloquently expresses the importance of xoe in the daily life of the Thai people who populate the remote north-western region of Vietnam.

But xoe is not the sun, it is a dance that developed and evolved among the ethnic minority community as a spiritual tradition ever since they settled in the country eons ago.  

The Thai people mostly live among the valleys along the rivers and springs in the mountainous provinces of Son La, Yen Bai and Lai Chau. They grow rice and corn on mountains, hills and down in the valleys. The diversified work they do has enriched the Thai lifestyle and culture as can be seen in their colorful costumes, folk songs, and the xoe dance.

The dance has many forms, the most popular being the xoe vong (circle dance). All people, old and young, dance around a fire, hand in hand. In the circle, if a girl and a boy fall for each other, they will separate to make a xoe  doi (dancing in pairs). Another form is xoe non (dance with conical hats) that is performed by young Thai girls, each with a conical hat in hand.

Binding tradition

According to elders in the Cang Na Village, Nghia Lo Town in Yen Bai Province, known as the birthplace of xoe, the dance is performed in public or family gatherings including celebrations, holidays, festivals, family reunions and so on. People gather around a big fire, drinking can wine and then dance xoe to the accompaniment of drums and gongs.

One person that every Thai person in Nghia Lo Town knows a lot about is artist Lo Van Bien, who has devoted his whole life to researching, collecting and teaching the old dance forms to young people. In 1995, the district's culture department invited him to help collect young people in the area and teach them to dance xoe.

"Our ancestors developed xoe from the time they established their lives here," Bien said.

"At first they developed just six forms, all rooted in daily life activities and works such as planting rice, cutting trees or wearing hats. The melodies and moves of xoe were taken from the sound and movement of our work and other activities. For example, one of the six old forms, named "˜Kham khan moi lau,' depicts our rites of hospitality. When we have a guest visiting, the woman in the family will hold her beautiful scarf and offer wine.

"Xoe dances have played an important part in our spiritual life," Bien continued. "It helps us relax after working hard and gives us more energy to work again. It also helps to build close relationships among people."

But youngsters seem to stand further.

However, in recent years, the dance seems to loosing its popularity among young people.

It is said that the Thai have some 36 forms of the xoe dance but only a handful are preserved now. Young people in particular don't pay much attention to keeping an old art form alive.

"I am very sad when I see that our club now attracts just old and middle-aged people who have lived through times when xoe was still popular," Bien said.

"The dance is simple and easy to learn but we can only mobilize young people to join when we have shows for visitors. And there are fewer chances these days for the dance to be organized after a hard-working day."

In Lai Chau, where the Thai people make up nearly half of the province's population, the dance is caught in the same situation.

The head of the Xoe Dance Troupe in Vang Pheo Village, Phong Tho District, Lo Thi Thin, said: "We need 16 people to make a xoe group but at present only have 13. Worse still, youngsters and children are not willing to join. Most of them cannot sing Thai songs either."

The fate of one of the most mythical and charming dances in the country hangs in the balance.

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