SAMBATH SUONG CAME to Seattle from a refugee camp in Cambodia, and dance helps remind her of her homeland.
When the 30 members of Suong's Rainier Vista Cambodian Youth Dance Group perform in the fifth annual Dance This . . . program (7 p.m. Saturday, July 12, Paramount Theatre, 206-292-2787), it will help reinforce a sense of belonging and appreciation for the culture their families left behind in Southeast Asia. The kids that Suong mentors are the children of refugees, with little firsthand knowledge of Cambodia but a deep understanding of what it is to be a stranger in a different environment. The community that has formed around the dance group anchors these kids in the larger world.
Suong helped start the group in her living room as an offshoot of a program at the local elementary school.
"The bilingual aide asked, 'Can I borrow your house to do rehearsal?' so I moved my sofa," she recalls. "Finally, I threw my sofa away."
THE REHEARSALS became social occasions, a chance to eat together and for the parents to network while their children worked to master the intricate postures of Cambodian court dance.
"Back home, we socialize in temple or market," Suong reflects. "But here, we don't have a group place to go." Though the program is now more formal, it's still a community-based project.
Several of the groups that will perform Saturday have used dance as a social tool as well as an art form. When Darrlyn Smith started a tap program at Martin Luther King Elementary School, which would develop into the TTAAPP Central Studio, she thought the attention to rhythm and pattern would help students with their math skills. The Iintombi Zilapha Dancers from South Africa were founded by a schoolteacher in Guguletu, a local township in Capetown, to keep young girls off the streets and away from violence. (Their name means "the girls are here.") For companies like Slieveloughane, performing the intricacies of traditional Irish step dancing helps kids master complex and challenging material. And the Discover Dance collaboration between the Pacific Northwest Ballet and the Ewajo Dance Workshop is designed to give kids who might otherwise not have the opportunity a chance to study a wide variety of styles.
Whatever the agenda, pride in the dancing links all these groups. We're a country in which everyone, at some point in the family tree, came from somewhere else. The young performers this weekend want to bring that heritage with them, and proudly share it with the rest of us.