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Hmong students bring rhythms of rainforest to life in Olbrich's Botanical Gardens program
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SCHOOL SPOTLIGHT | OLBRICH BOTANICAL GARDENS

Hmong students bring rhythms of rainforest to life in Olbrich's Botanical Gardens program

From the School Spotlight: Adventures in learning, inside and outside the classroom series
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Amid frigid weekend temperatures and snow piled high outdoors, Hmong students and their adviser celebrated a rainforest culture in the humid Bolz Conservatory at Olbrich Botanical Gardens.

East High School freshman Mai Chee Thao and her sister, sophomore Kao Nou Thao, wore traditional Hmong clothing as they danced to the song “Hmoob Tsiab Peb Caug” by Leekong Xiong and Dalee Chang.

Their synchronized movements reflected the words of the song about a Hmong New Year celebration where people dance and toss balls.

The sisters said it feels great to perform a traditional song and to show it to others.

“I also think everyone gets nervous when performing,” Mai Chee Thao said.

They were being filmed Saturday so others can learn about the traditions of the Hmong culture through an annual program at Olbrich called Rainforest Rhythms, which is being presented online this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to the program about the Hmong — an ethnic group in Laos — another Rainforest Rhythms program will focus on Cuba.

Rainforest Rhythms celebrates cultures from tropical and sub-tropical rainforest regions around the world by spotlighting authentic performances of dance and music. As part of the program, tropical plants from these regions are highlighted and participatory elements are included. The event is normally presented in a room at Olbrich and includes a chance to tour the conservatory.

“A lot of people had to skip vacations this year and kids have had to miss field trips,” said Mike Gibson, program specialist at Olbrich. “I hope people can use this as a little escape ... and learn about the culture of where these plants are from.”

Gibson hopes parents and teachers can use the videos for online field trips as part of students’ learning during the pandemic.

“They’re for everyone, but we’ve definitely thought about the kids,” Gibson said.

The Rainforest Rhythms videos can be found at olbrich.org/events/RainforestRhythms.cfm. The Laos Rainforest Rhythms will be available for viewing by March 15. A Cuban Rainforest Rhythms will be available starting Feb. 15.

Mayder Lor, a recreational specialist with Madison School and Community Recreation at East High School, wore a traditional Hmong necklace as she was filmed preparing a papaya salad called thum mak hoong. Papaya is one of the plants that will be highlighted in the video.

Jordan Xiong, a junior at East, sang in Hmong and played the guitar while wearing traditional Hmong clothing. He was performing an original song he wrote about love, choosing a life partner and building a life together.

“It’s a good way to put yourself out there and put your culture out there,” Xiong said about performing.

Those being filmed for the Hmong program are part of Soulful Productions Academy, which is open to all students at East High School.

Lor, a performing artist and professional emcee who works around the country, created Soulful Productions Academy as an afterschool club at East for Madison School and Community Recreation. Members of the group practice and then perform singing, rapping, dancing and other talents for special events at East and at other venues.

“Our kids have a gift that they want to tap into and I want it to become a reality for them,” Lor said. “It creates a lot of confidence in our students.”

Mai Chee Thao said Soulful Productions Academy helps students who want to show their talents to others people and get better at them.

“Soulful Productions Academy is (a place) where I can practice my dance with my friends and meet other students, too,” Kao Nou Thao said.

Xiong said Asians often deal with the stereotype of being serious students and that can be limiting.

Soulful Productions Academy “just allowed me to embrace who I am,” Xiong said.

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