About two dozen boys in brightly fringed pants bent low and moved deftly to the pounding drum.
They were practicing at Charlotte’s Lien Hoa Temple for a performance of the lion dance at the upcoming Vietnamese New Year celebration.
But while the dance is an ancient tradition, this year is different.
For the first time, the youth of the Buddhist temple and St. Joseph Vietnamese Catholic Church have teamed up to perform the dance at one big New Year’s event in February.
“It’s a new experience – we’ve never done this before,” said Thinh Tran, 20, who is a church member and one of the practice leaders. “We’re two different religions, but we’re all Vietnamese. It’s just coming together and practicing a tradition that’s part of our culture.”
Binh Phu, the president of the Vietnamese Association of Charlotte, said combining the two youth groups for one lion dance has been something he’s thought about doing for a long time.
When he learned that other people had been thinking about it, too, he decided to make the change this year, and he said he’s glad he did.
“It is more fun, and the community sees the cooperative effort of unity that basically we are all in this together,” Phu said. “It is a milestone, and I think this is a very good opportunity for even more possible collaborative events going forward where every Vietnamese in the community pulls in together.”
Phu said there has never been animosity between Charlotte’s Vietnamese Buddhists and Catholics, but said they’ve always celebrated cultural events separately.
For Danny Tran, 15, teaming up with Buddhist youth for the lion dance meant fraternizing with the competition.
“It’s interesting because usually you’re competing against each other, but now we’re together,” Tran said.
He said he enjoys taking part in the dance with other Vietnamese Americans because it’s a way to preserve his culture.
“It’s very important,” he said. “It’s important because we’re showing our culture so other people can see it.”
The lion dance is a traditional dance that is performed to chase away evil spirits for a happy new year.
The youth will be performing their dance – which involves a lot of gymnastic moves, bright colors and ferocious lions – at Charlotte’s big festival event Feb. 17 at Central Piedmont Community College’s uptown campus.
Charlotte’s Vietnamese population, which Phu estimated to be between 10,000 and 11,000, is one of the largest Asian populations in Charlotte.
Behind the Vietnamese are the Chinese, with about 8,000 in Charlotte, said John Chen, the chairman of the Carolinas Asian-American Chamber of Commerce.
The Chinese and Vietnamese celebrate the same New Year on Feb. 10, he said, and while a big event took place Jan. 26, there will be other Chinese New Year celebrations happening soon around Charlotte.