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This story comes to you from MPR News through a partnership with Sahan Journal.

The Hmong Community in rural Tracy in southwestern Minnesota is busy getting ready for the new year. It’s a time for families and friends to gather for festivities celebrating the end of the harvest season.

But for some young dancers it’s crunch time as the Hmong New Year approaches. Inside a classroom at the Veterans Memorial Center in Tracy, a group of girls run through traditional dance routines time and time again.

Wearing colorful flowing skirts, two dance instructors break down the dance and demonstrate the steps.

One of the routines involves intricate footwork over long bamboo poles as other performers mark the rhythm by clapping the poles together.

Instructor KaZoua Thao takes pride in teaching the girls and helping build a foundation for young Hmong dancers around the area. 

“It takes a village to raise and help out with one another,” Thao said. “A great time to celebrate it is during the Hmong New Year.”

Hmong New Year celebrates the end of the harvest season. Community members adorn themselves in intricately decorated clothes, feast on traditional Hmong food, and perform dances. Every year, they gather at Tracy High School for a day-long celebration, free and open to all.

Three decades in Tracy

Attracted by manufacturing jobs, the Hmong community began putting down roots in the Tracy-Walnut Grove area more than three decades ago. They helped revitalize towns, pushing population growth. Now about a tenth of Tracy’s population is Hmong.

The sunset is reflected on grain silos along South 4th Street in the southwestern Minnesota town of Tracy on November 7. Credit: Ben Hovland | MPR News

Over the years, some families moved away. But many return to Tracy for the New Year. Thao said it’s about celebrating the fruits of hard labor for older generations, but also creating opportunities in the community for young people to learn more about their heritage.

“Growing up as Hmong American, we go through the identity crisis of just kind of like, ‘Should I really love who I am?’” She said, “Or, ‘Do I know my culture?’ and it’s kind of like a chance for them to kind of continue and love themselves, that our culture is beautiful.”

KaZoua Thao teaches a traditional Hmong dance during rehearsal on November 7 in Tracy, Minnesota. Credit: Ben Hovland | MPR News

Hmong dance connects performers to their heritage and brings generations together. 17-year-old Eisha Vue from Tracy worked on her steps. She saw her aunts dance when she was little, and has wanted to learn more ever since. She admitted this is the first time in years she’s taken to the floor.

She’s motivated to continue dancing and maybe one day teach younger girls how to dance for Hmong New Year.

“It’s a part of tradition and our culture, and I would love to keep the dance going because it brings everybody together,” Vue said. “And it’s always fun to do it with other people. And you never know, you might like it too and it just keeps it going and keeps the culture alive.”

Marilyn Vang (left) and Serene Yang practice traditional Hmong choreography during a Hmong New Years celebration rehearsal on November 7 in Tracy, Minnesota. Credit: Ben Hovland | MPR News

The younger dancers take notice, including Serene Yang, a nine-year-old from Walnut Grove. After seeing her cousins dance, she wanted to become a dancer too.

“They’re best at dancing,” Yang said. “They’re nice to talk with and they always help us when we need help.”

New generation of dancers

The younger dancers’ interest in continuing to learn and celebrate their heritage motivates Thao to share all that she knows with the next generation, so that maybe they’ll also keep traditions going, including Hmong New Year in Tracy.

She hoped her students would share her passion and take it into the future. Whether that happens, it’s clear while the dancers polished their routines for the new year event this weekend in town, the memories they built will last a lifetime. 

“Coming from a small town and always had like this seed of wanting to keep on dancing,” Thao said. “Keeping the culture it’s very exciting for me and it’s very important to me as well. I am so passionate about it and I’m just so excited to teach these younger little girls to hopefully be as passionate as I am, or even more.”

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Hannah Yang

An award-winning journalist, Hannah Yang joined the MPR News regional team in December 2019 as the southwest Minnesota reporter. Having extensively covered the southeast part of the state, Hannah has experience...