Pham carries torch of ancient traditions through unbreakable bonds

Local lion dancing troupe tying community together for Lunar New Year

Pham carries torch of ancient traditions through unbreakable bonds

Coppell freshman Taylor Pham dons the intricately decorated red and yellow lân costume as she gets ready to perform. Onlookers in traditional attire huddle around excitedly in the crisp, smoke-filled air around bright red paper — both remnants of the firecrackers — and colorful props.

She’s carrying the brightly burning torch of centuries-old ceremonies with the other lion dancers of the Pháp Quang Temple, and will pass them on to other dancers one day.

Born to two longtime leaders of the Pháp Quang Temple in Grand Prairie, Pham has been actively involved with youth groups and volunteering for the temple since a young age.

CHS9 student Taylor Pham and Coppell High School senior Isabelle Beach rehearse their lion dance routine. The Pháp Quang lion dance group performed traditional lion dancing as a part of Lunar New Year celebrations at Asia Times Square on Jan. 22. (Sruthi Lingam)

“Taylor has always been a great student inside and outside of our youth group,” temple leader Hiền Minh Nguyễn said. “She’s always stepped up to represent her group, even others would shy away from responsibilities. She’s always been a step above the rest.”

But her journey began two years ago after her adamant attendance of a lion dancing practice from her parents’ encouragement. Lion dancing is a form of storytelling that comprises two dancers performing as one lion, with a head that operates the head of the lion costume and a tail that uses strength to support the head and perform stunts. 

However, Pham’s initial agreement was to not even take a lion: instead, she would play the instruments that supported the lion’s dances.

To the amazement of her parents, by the end of her first day, Pham came back as the tail of a lion.

“What convinced me then was seeing all of my friends dance together,” Pham said. “They wanted me to join so we could do it together.”

Lion dancing demands often physically-tolling and hard-to-master stunts from those who undertake it, and as such has been a typically male-dominated activity. On the contrary, the Pháp Quang troupe comprises mainly younger girls. 

“I’m proud to say that our girls have the mentality of, ‘anything you can do, I can do better,” Nguyễn said. “Starting with the group of lion dancers two groups behind Taylor’s, the girls have done almost everything the boys would typically do.”

Since Nguyễn joined the temple in 1995 as a youth performer, multiple waves of dancers have entered and graduated as dancers, often returning to teach newer groups of dancers and continuing the temple’s cycle. More girls have entered the program as advanced dancers, each group building everlasting bonds and a sense of sisterhood over shared experiences, communities and passions, including Pham.

I’m proud to say that our girls have the mentality of, ‘anything you can do, I can do better,

— Hiền Minh Nguyễn

“Everyone has their [tough] moments, but Taylor always gets over them and gets back to work,” said temple member Natalee Hoàng, a sophomore at Mansfield Lake Ridge. “She’s incredibly hard-working, and when she greets me she gives me these hugs that make me feel so loved. Lion dancing threw us together and made us great friends.”

To Coppell High School senior and lion dancer Isabelle Beach, her relationship with Taylor and the other girls is like an older sister’s to her younger siblings.

“We’ve all grown up together, and I’m one of the most senior girls who is still dancing with the group,” Beach said. “There’s an extra level of bonding and kinship to me. I get to cheer them on through all their successes and failures as a lion dancer and personally.”

All performers can pick which role and routine they take in the show, and each routine tells the story of the playful, mischievous lion getting into mishaps or adventures. The lion is a powerful mythical figure, and lion dancing is an important part of the new year season in blessing the community and stores.

“I chose to perform the bench routine because it was the most interesting to me,” Pham said. “Last year, I was a beginner and learned most of the basics. This year, I’m more involved with a routine and I’ve gotten closer to my team.”

Creating these bonds is also key to perfecting the fluidity of the lion’s each motion. The two dancers under one lion costume must sync their coordination to act as one rather than two disparate halves of a lion.

CHS9 student and lion dancer Taylor Pham helps prepare the lion costume with her team members. The Pháp Quang lion dance group performed traditional lion dancing as a part of Lunar New Year celebrations at Asia Times Square in Grand Prairie on Jan. 22. (Sruthi Lingam)

Taylor’s routine unfolded the tale of two lions trying to get flowers out of a pot while struggling to travel through an obstacle, represented by the tall red benches. Her role as a tail demanded strength and precision, supporting the head in stunts to make the lion jump and walk.

“The tails have to communicate effectively with the head, every movement that a head makes needs to be detailed,” said Taylor’s father Ken Pham, who is also a temple leader. “One foot cannot be out and the other foot in, they always have to be in sync.”

To celebrate Lunar New Year on Jan. 22, the troupe dedicated up to 10 hours every weekend in the months leading up to the performance to stay in shape and master each routine with trainers, starting as early as September. Perfecting the bench routine as a tail required Taylor to maintain physical strength throughout the year.

“I had to work a lot to get stronger so I was able to lift up my partner on the benches and crates,” Taylor said. “I also had to work on my form and posture so it looked better in the lion.”

Additionally, the troupe performed their first full routine since the pandemic this year, which presented challenges of its own.

“Just getting back into the groove of things was tough, and we had to stay conscious of everyone’s health through their work,” Nguyễn said. “We had to balance our practices with the dancers’ other extracurricular activities as well. She jumping in and picking back up on the routine shows you the creativity and hard work on-the-spot of [Taylor and her partner].”

But the result of dancers working together for those months is bonds that last a lifetime.

“Especially in the youth group, I’ve seen that for the past over 20 years that I have been here, they are all good friends in our organizations,” Mr. Pham said. “The friendship lasts until their adulthood. Even when they have families and kids, they still keep that bond. That’s what I see in Taylor with her friends.”

On Lunar New Year, Taylor found herself at the center of festivities in Asia Times Square. Surrounding her were hundreds of families, eagerly waiting to hand money to the lions and catch the oranges thrown by the lions to ensure good luck for the year.

Pháp Quang youth group performers throw oranges to the crowd to bestow good luck for the new year. The Pháp Quang lion dance group performed traditional lion dancing as a part of Lunar New Year celebrations at Asia Times Square in Grand Prairie on Jan. 22. (Yaamini Jois)

This was their biggest performance out of all their sets across the Dallas Fort-Worth area. The full routine started out with thunderous firecrackers, transitioning into the performers’ routines and concluding with the lions blessing each establishment in the area as per tradition.

Hours of practice and cogs and wheels came fitting together like a well-oiled machine to create the full performance, which was a huge success and a community engagement for all those who came together to celebrate the auspicious day.

“When I was younger, I’d feel so happy getting to see the lions and giving them money,” Taylor said. “Now that I’m a part of [lion dancing], seeing all the children and being the reason that they smile urges me to work harder.”

To the leaders of the temple, seeing dancers like Taylor take on responsibilities to keep traditions alive and tie the larger community together is an invaluable experience to everyone involved in celebrating, audiences included. 

“[The dancers] feel such a sense of accomplishment when they elicit an emotion in the audience,” Nguyễn said. “It’s a joy to give back to the community. They feel responsibility when they provide [this experience] to their community and know how to become more than just the paper, paint and cloth they put on. They’ve joined a unique membership here, and as I tell them, they’ve had to earn the right to put on the lion.”

To Taylor, lion dancing has become an integral part of her life and a performance that she’ll undertake wholeheartedly each year.

“Lion dancing is an outlet for me to get away from any problems,” Taylor said. “Every Saturday and Sunday when I go back, I forget what the rest of my world is like: I just focus on doing what I love with the people I love, and that’s truly refreshing for me.”

Follow Yaamini (@yjois12) and @CHSCampusNews on Twitter.