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Northwest Fayetteville Fort Smith
Northwest Culture 0

Noble 8 Lion Dance: Preserving Cultural Heritage


For Chris Hall, the lion dance is part of his past but integral to the future he is preserving for Vietnamese Americans in Arkansas. Hall grew up participating in the lion dance traditions offered through Pho Minh Buddhist Temple in Fort Smith. He participated as a teen, and in 2016, the temple monk approached him about taking over the program that was beginning to wane in participation.

Hall leaped at the chance to lead this group that meant so much to his adolescent years. Conferences and visits to other well-known performing groups gave him a better understanding of organizing the group’s structure. He began recruiting members to his team through the temple, word-of-mouth, and teens inviting other friends to participate. As the group grew large enough, he officially established Noble Eight Lion Dance.

Noble Eight is the only formalized lion dance team in the state of Arkansas. Other groups, through faith organizations or community spaces, own equipment for their performances, but Noble Eight is the only team formally preserving this heritage folk dance medium.

The lion dance is typical of cultural festivities in countries with ancient Chinese affiliations, like China, Vietnam, Singapore and Malaysia. In addition, countries like Japan and Korea use different performing arts in their cultural celebrations. The dragon dance is another art form found in these cultural celebrations. Lion dance uses two performers per “lion,” while dragon dance can use 7 to 15 performers for each longer “dragon.”

Vietnamese Roots in Arkansas

The Indochinese Migration and Refugee Assistance Act was passed in 1975 as a congressional response to the humanitarian crisis following the removal of American military personnel in Vietnam. Designated as one of four locations in the country for Vietnam refugees, Fort Chaffee near Fort Smith became home to many looking for a safer place for their families. The first 70 refugees arrived May 2; by December, more than 50,000 refugees lived at Fort Chaffee.

Nearly 3,500 Army personnel moved to the fort to establish an infrastructure of the 11th largest city in Arkansas at the time. Vietnamese newspapers and bilingual radio stations helped with communication. The local community college, now the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, taught English classes and American entertainment programs introduced the new residents to local culture.

Local organizations like the Catholic Church found sponsor families around the United States for the refugees. But some did choose to stay in the Fort Smith area and establish a new family life. While Asian Americans only made up 4.7% of the population in Sebastian County in 2020, Laotian grocery stores, Vietnamese restaurants and Buddhist temples mark their presence across the community.

Preserving the Past

Keeping these cultural stories alive is the primary goal of Chris Hall, founder of Noble Eight Lion Dance. Everyone involved is a volunteer, and any money made covers expenses and new costumes. A portion of the proceeds is given each year to their sponsoring temple.

“I remember the joy performing would bring. It’s so nostalgic to me,” Hall shared. “I’ve had older Vietnamese come up to me and thank me for this group. As an Arkansas resident, they had not seen performances like this since their childhood back home.”

Hall sees the importance of preserving this cultural heritage for his nieces and nephews in the next generation. “We are only one generation away from losing a native language or cultural traditions. I was a first-generation American, but I can already see in my younger family that they are missing those connections to our family’s past. These types of things take intention to stick.”

Most current performers started as high school students and are now young adults and college graduates. “We can share many of the responsibilities of leading the group because many of the team have brought their business and communication skills to help us plan and organize. They started with me as ninth graders and now are moving their work schedules around to participate with us.”

Telling Stories through Lion Dance

The lion dance performance is very symbolic. As with most things in Asian culture, the costumes, colors, and movements have special meanings and are part of ancient traditions passed down over centuries. Lunar New Year is a popular time for Lion Dance performances. It directly demonstrates the legend of a lion coming into a village and the villagers listening to their monk to scare the mythological character away.

A drummer often accompanies a lion dance. The drummer keeps the beat for the choreographed performance, and the drum helps scare away the evil spirits. The typical story pattern of a lion dance performance starts with the lion realizing a prize. Then, it must overcome obstacles keeping it from the destination and a prize.  Once the lion arrives, an audience participant offers a reward, typically mandarin oranges or a clementine, and the lion celebrates. In some experiences, the lion will pause and offer a blessing before it returns home.

Experiencing a live lion dance was on my bucket list of 40 things to do before I turned 40. I’ve not forgotten how it made me feel. You can feel the drum beat in your chest, your heart warms to the lion, and you cheer for him. A live performance is a moving experience where you connect and see your personal struggles and triumphs played out before you.

In coordination with Lunar New Year celebrations, the Noble Eight Lion Dance team is busy with local celebrations in Fort Smith and Fayetteville but was invited to participate in Choctaw Casinos’ Chinese New Year celebration this year. Additionally, they are part of the seasonal temple celebrations throughout the year and began performing in 2022 for some cultural weddings.

Connect with Noble Eight Lion Dance

Instagram | Facebook | YouTube

To book a performance, email thenoble8liondance@gmail.com.

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Keisha (Pittman) McKinney lives in Northwest Arkansas with her chicken man and break-dancing son. Keisha is passionate about connecting people and building community, seeking solutions to the everyday big and small things, and encouraging others through the mundane, hard, and typical that life often brings. She put her communications background to work as a former Non-profit Executive Director, college recruiter and fundraiser, small business trainer, and Digital Media Director at a large church in Northwest Arkansas. Now, she is using those experiences through McKinney Media Solutions and her blog @bigpittstop, which includes daily adventures, cooking escapades, #bigsisterchats, the social justice cases on her heart, and all that she is learning as a #boymom! Keisha loves to feed birds, read the stack on her nightstand, do dollar store crafts, cook recipes from her Pinterest boards, and chase everyday adventures on her Arkansas bucket list.

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