Ngan Nguyen, 15, arrived in Seattle from Ho Chi Minh City just 10 months ago.
”I was scared when I came here,” she explained in hesitant English.
She said she never dreamed she’d soon appear on stage, performing a traditional dance with other Vietnamese students in front of a large audience.
“But this is so much fun!” she said, comfortable in the company of fellow dancers.
These students from the Seattle World School will be among the opening acts of the Northwest Folklife Festival that begins May 25 at Seattle Center. They’ll appear in the Center House Food Court at 11 a. m.
Their instructor, Kim Hua, said, “For me, it’s all about getting students to work cooperatively as a team. It’s seeing them develop commitment, responsibility and patience that’s important.”
Down the hall at the Seattle World School, a lively group of Somali dancers clap and step in time to East African music under the watchful eye of Munira Farah, who works at the school’s Teen Health Center. She has six girls working on a dance usually performed at weddings and special parties.
“These kids are keeping one part of their culture alive by remembering dances and music from their former lives,” she explained. “Some of the girls were in refugee camps and had little exposure to traditional practices of their home countries. It’s good for them to learn about something that celebrates happy times.”
Also rehearsing during the lunch hour is a group of Oromo-speaking Ethiopian students. Five girls shimmy through the complex maneuvers of their dance, all laughing while trying to stay out of each other’s way.
Farther down the hall, instructional assistant Ngoc Hsu works with a group of Chinese students.
“It’s hard to get these kids started because they’re so shy,” she said. “But they practice every day and even come in on weekends. They help each other and gain so much confidence doing this. I can see them grow.”
She added, “Most of my girls aren’t familiar with traditional dances. With this project, we help them learn something from their culture that creates a sense of identity and inheritance.”
Additional acts include a group of Latino dancers who are choreographing their own dance, making it up as they go along, and having a merry time doing so. Tigrinyaspeaking dancers, as well as a group of Amharic-speaking students, will also perform. Two different groups will sing, and a Vietnamese student, Vu Dong, will play the piano.
For the last 10 years, students from this newcomer school have entertained audiences at the opening of Seattle’s spring music and arts festival. Sometimes there are dancers from Nepal or Cambodia; other times, from Brazil, and once from Congo. With a wealth of talent and a wide variety of cultures, the students’ presentations bring attention to the diversity of ethnic groups living in our cosmopolitan city. Costumes, music, rhythm, color and sparkling eyes bring to an American audience a small taste of exotic and faraway places.
“It’s hard for these kids to leave behind cousins, grandparents, friends [and] favorite teachers and start a new life in a new country. But once they’re here, they inevitably make new friends, and this Folklife participation enables them to share their culture with fellow students,” said Irene Rodriguez, house administrator at the school. “By helping the different groups work together, we can help them find common ground while also showcasing cultural differences.”
For 30 eyars, Seattle World School, now in the former Meany Middle School on Capitol Hill, was known as the Secondary Bilingual Orientation Center (SBOC). It was a transitional program for newcomer students who needed to learn English before moving on. Just this last year, it won approval from the Seattle School District to begin offering high school classes, adding one year at a time so that students will have a choice of either staying on and eventually graduating from the school or leaving to attend their neighborhood secondary school.
This year, it has its first ninth-grade class, which will move on to 10th grade next fall, with potential to graduate from the school in 2015.
DIANE STEEN is a volunteer at the Seattle World School (formerly the Secondary Bilingual Orientation Center). For more information, visit the Friends of SBOC’s website: www.friendsofsboc.org.