It has been almost two years since I have last choreographed a cultural dance, so I was slightly nervous when I volunteered to lead the Nghĩa Sĩ dance for the 37th Lễ Bổn Mạng during our Nganh Meeting on Wednesday, 10/3. Our 37th Lễ Bổn Mạng was set to be on Saturday, 11/3. Yes, exactly one month to draft up some Nghĩa Sĩ, choreograph, teach the dance, and refine the dance. Not only was I worried that I was out of practice for choreographing, but I was also worried about the time limit.
Part of the reason why we decided on this late was because our Doan did not pick on a theme until the Saturday before our Nganh Meeting. In less than a day after our Doan meeting, the theme was decided to be “The Footsteps of Vietnamese Martyrs”.
Once I knew the theme and volunteered to lead the dance, I had only one song in mind to use: Bài Ca Ngàn Trùng, a song about the Vietnamese Martyrs.
How did I find this song? I found it while browsing YouTube for another Vietnamese song a few years ago. When I first heard it, I thought it sounded super serious and dramatic so I favorited it. It sounded so meaningful despite my understanding of the Vietnamese words. I just knew it had something to do with Vietnamese Martyrs since the YouTube videos showed pictures of Vietnamese Martyrs with the song. (Using context clues!) Little did I know I was actually going to choreograph a dance for this song a couple years later…
When I choreograph a dance, I try to understand the meaning behind the words and research the background of the song. However, since this is an old Vietnamese church song, my only hope was to just try to understand the lyrics. Who did I ask for help? My dad. On Friday night before the first dance practice, I asked my dad to translate each line, one by one, so that I can understand the meaning of the song and choreograph the dance with movement related to the lyrics.
My main goal for choreographing the dance to this specific song was to make sure that this dance did not look like a Dâng Hoa. The song I chose is commonly sung in church. We actually heard this song being sung during a rước kiệu for Các Thánh Tử đạo Việt Nam at our parish a few weeks before LBM. When I told a few HTs during the rước kiệu that this was going to be the song Nghĩa Sĩ will dance to, they had a confused face and were probably thinking, “How are you guys going to dance to this song?” And honestly, I didn’t really know how I was going to choreograph this. All I knew was that I did not want this dance to look like a Dang Hoa. The dance should not entirely look gentle, graceful, or flowy. The dance had to look mostly sharp and serious, but at the same time, worshipping God.
When I think about the Vietnamese Martyrs, I think of death because they all died for God. The lyrics, “Cho đầu rơi máu chảy / ánh đức tin kiên trung / chiếu sáng khi gươm vung”, (Let the bleeding head fall / Strong, bright Faith / Shines brightly when the sword swings), is about beheading, which was probably the one of the most common ways the Vietnamese Martyrs were killed. I decided that this dance was going to portray the different ways the Vietnamese Martyrs could have been killed.
Now, how was I going to portray violence in a dance without being too explicit? Using plastic swords would have been too obvious and it would have made the dance look like a homicide demonstration. It might as well have been a skit then. Fans and Bamboo hats were out of the question because they seemed too gentle and graceful. In the end, I decided to use fabric. Fabric was the most versatile. It can be both flowy and strong and can balance out the sharp dance movements.
I use GoogleSheets to plan out the entire dance. This method works for me because I can see the overall feeling and picture of the dance.
For costumes, I knew I wanted everyone to look uniform. Death did not discriminate gender. There were both male and female martyrs. I wanted everyone to look like they were poor or in poverty so that all they really had was their faith. The mood of the entire dance was serious and a little dark, so I wanted dark colors. Hence, this is why they wore dark brown Ao Ba Bas and black pants/leggings. The fabrics were red to represent blood. They were practically walking Hiệp Sĩ Khăn Quàngs. (Boys had black fabric because I did not have enough red fabric, but at least it still matched the theme).
There were 3 methods of killing portrayed in the dance: 1) Beheading, 2) Hanging, 3) Splitting (Stretched to Death).
- Beheading: Both Nghĩa Sĩ Nữ and Nghĩa Sĩ Nam took turns portraying beheading at 0:52 & 2:10. The fabric certainly disguised the movement, but if you take a good look, it really is the movement of beheading. This was shown twice because I wanted some equality (both genders dying). There were some female Vietnamese martyrs recorded. Plus, I wanted to emphasize this very common killing method in Vietnam.
- Hanging: Shown at 3:21. This method was the most explicit and I felt that it was more appropriate for the Nghĩa Sĩ Nam to be hung rather than the Nghĩa Sĩ Nữ. In addition, most Vietnamese Martyrs that were recorded were male because they were priests. While teaching this part, I joked that the girls putting the fabric around the boys’ neck was going to be the most romantic gesture of this dance. You think the girls are giving the boys a hug from behind, but nope!
- Splitting: Shown at 3:30. Although this may not have been a common method of killing in Vietnam, it may have still been possible it was executed. This could have been an unrecorded method of murder. Disguised as an acrobatic portion of the dance, a Nghĩa Sĩ Nữ and Nghĩa Sĩ Nam sibling pair showed off their flexibility and portrayed this death.
The separate Nghĩa Sĩ Nữ and Nghĩa Sĩ Nam dance portions were the most difficult to choreograph. At this part of the song, the tone is more gentle and calm. I added floorwork to match the pace of the song. For Nghĩa Sĩ Nữ, I incorporated contemporary dance to differentiate this part from the refrain. For Nghĩa Sĩ Nam, I used tribal-like dance movements and (what the boys thought) a breakdancing pose to keep it different from the girls. In both cases, my aim was to show them worshipping and praising God.
Throughout the dance, there were many waves (cascading). This represented the ripple effect of Vietnamese martyrs. Words of mouth spread that certain individuals died for Jesus Christ. Some people even followed the martyrs’ footsteps. The Vietnamese martyrs affected many lives, including our own lives today.
The flying stunt (2:00) is to signify going to Heaven and reaching towards God. In a way, I based off the idea off of the “Creation of Adam” painting. When I look at this painting, it looks like Adam is reaching towards God. (Totally unrelated to the actual meaning of the painting, but this is how I interpreted it).
The Nghĩa Sĩ Nữ not doing the stunt were to align their right arm and leg to be a straight line, signifying a straight path to Heaven. When you are martyred, you have a straight path right to Heaven after you die for God.
The ending pose was inspired by Miền Đông Nam’s Đại Hội Hiệp Sĩ Quốc Tế (2012) performance. The Nghĩa Sĩ Nữ represents all the Vietnamese Martyrs. As she climbs up, she is traveling a rough road just to die for Christ. Hence, she opens up her arms like how Jesus died on the cross and falls. The Nghĩa Sĩ Nam catches her to signify God will save us all, especially because we died for Him. This ending pose can be interpreted in multiple ways, but this is what I wanted the ending pose to mean.
I think I was more nervous than the Nghĩa Sĩ on the performance day! We got 2 run-throughs on stage before and I still felt like there was so much to clean up, but we were out of time. (I am a perfectionist) However, during the actual performance, the Nghĩa Sĩ’s movements were so smooth suddenly! That’s the funny thing about performances. They always look so off during regular practice, but when it comes to actually performing, they somehow sync up together and look a thousand times better! The crowd cheered for a lot of parts of the dance (including parts I forgot they would cheer at) and I was so proud of the Nghĩa Sĩ for nailing down each stunt. Big shoutout to their Nghĩa Sĩ peers! They cheered like crazy for their friends!
Choreographing this dance brought back my forgotten love for choreographing and creativity. There were many times when I ran into a mental block because I couldn’t think of moves that matched the lyrics. I had to somehow make this dance look sharp and serious with a low-profile story of the deaths of the Vietnamese martyrs without being too explicit. On top of that, it still needed to actually look like a dance, not a skit. There are no examples on YouTube of a religious dance that looks different from a Dang Hoa. I was in a new territory of dance and needed to be creative. Ultimately, I am honestly quite happy with how the dance turned out. For the first time, I incorporated stunts in a TNTT dance and learned how to think outside the box more. We all worked hard and I appreciate my Nghĩa Sĩ kids for trying everything I threw at them despite how difficult some moves and stunts were. They are so fun(ny) to work with!
Needlessly to say, I cannot wait until I choreograph the next dance!