Thirteen-year-old Xeng has found an artistic refuge.
Joining other Hmong girls for a weekly Viv Ncaus Dance Troupe rehearsal “helps me get my stress away,” she said. “When I come here, I have fun. It only feels like a minute, and then we go home.”
For the past 16 years, the Madison-based dance troupe for Hmong girls has been raising dozens of confident, socially conscious young women through the cultural arts as part of the local social justice organization Freedom Inc.
Xeng’s coach requested that her last name not be used because Freedom Inc. wants to protect the privacy of those who use the organization’s services.
Dancers, age 7 to 17, learn traditional Hmong dances that they often perform at local community events, where they are recognized for their energetic performances and vibrant attire.
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Viv Ncaus is the Hmong word for “sisterhood,” which is appropriate, because it was born from one.
When she was 15, Zon Moua co-founded Viv Ncaus Dance Troupe with a group of her best friends. The girls practiced Hmong dances together after school, and their informal basement gatherings soon became a space where Moua and her friends had conversations about girlhood, violence and inequality — all topics that were considered taboo in their home lives.
“We were having conversations about why girls are continuously mistreated in society, and it wasn’t just about how it was happening in the Hmong community, but in general,” Moua recalled.
These practices were soon met with resistance from their parents, prompting the girls to move their rehearsals to Bayview Community Center, where even more Hmong girls became interested in joining the budding dance troupe.
“We were running into these issues where our families were upset because we were hanging out and probably thought we were bad influences on each other,” Moua said. “We’re having these conversations and we’re dancing and having fun, and our families are mad at us. So, we went somewhere else.”
After the dance group’s expansion, the troupe eventually partnered with Freedom Inc., which offered to provide the group with food, but only if the dancers agreed to have weekly conversations with the social justice organization. The themes of these regular check-ins were often related to discussions the dancers had already been having, but now they could define their experiences.
“It was eye-opening because the kind of check-ins that they were doing with us were actually conversations that my friends and I were already having around, like, family violence and gender-based violence, but we didn’t have the vocabulary for it,” Moua said.
Today, Viv Ncaus is still going strong, and Moua works for Freedom Inc. as the organization’s queer justice director. The troupe, 13 Hmong girls of various ages, rehearses once a week in the basement of Freedom Inc., 2110 Luanne Lane.
Rehearsals have become an essential social outlet for many of the dancers.
“A lot of girls come through and they don’t have the support that they need so they drop, but then they will always come back to me,” Viv Ncaus coach Mai Thao Yang said. “They always come back because they know this is a safe place.”
Since Viv Ncaus is tied to Freedom Inc., its dancers have access to the organization’s resources and trained advocates who can help them navigate issues outside of rehearsal, such as domestic violence or intimate partner violence, as the troupe works toward its mission of ending gender-based violence.
“All the dancers that come in, whether they are experiencing violence directly or indirectly, they all have access to advocates,” Moua said. “You’re not just coming to dance, but if you’re experiencing something, let’s figure out what resources there are and do safety planning to make sure you’re safe and protected.”
Since the group’s founding, many former dancers have come back to volunteer or have started dance troupes of their own. As Yang looks toward the next few years for Viv Ncaus, she hopes the team can start participating in dance competitions again, paused due to the pandemic, and for the team to have its own studio space.
But, in the meantime, a central goal of both Yang and Moua is to continue to help cultivate a safe space for Hmong girls to gather, built on the importance of sisterhood.
“In our culture, we’ve been taught that you can only build sisterhood if it’s connected to the men in your life, and we’re saying no to that,” Moua said. “If anything happens, if they’re kicked out of their family for coming out, dating someone or whatever it may be, we as a sisterhood in this dance group are still here for each other.”
Photos: Cycropia Aerial Dance at Orton Park