In the Year of the Dragon, Gio Nam Mua Lan celebrates 20 years

The Gio Nam Mua Lan Lion dance team rehearse.
The Gio Nam lion dance team practice at the Social Science Hall quad at the UC Irvine on Thursday.
(James Carbone)
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When most students were finishing up their classes and heading home for the day, the members of Gió Nam Múa Lân gathered in front of UC Irvine’s Social Sciences building to prepare for what would be a two-hour practice.

Hung Le Couture, who founded the group in 2004, watched its members go through their paces on a recent Thursday evening with quiet fondness and pride.

In the hazy light afforded by the surrounding buildings and street lamps, instructors drummed and clacked their sticks against the rims of their instruments as they directed the lion dancers through their poses with little more than a word and the rhythm that echoed through the night.


Le Couture said the group came about after he joined the campus’ Vietnamese Student Assn., known as VSA. He said he was asked to do a lion dance and felt a connection with it.

Jacky Thai, 19, wearing the lion head and Sasha Lin, 19, holding the tail of the lion.
Jacky Thai, 19, wearing the lion head and Sasha Lin, 19, holding the tail of the lion, rehearse with the Gio Nam Mua Lan at the Social Science Hall quad at UC Irvine. The team typically meets every Monday and Thursday to practice.
(James Carbone)

“I’ve been doing marital arts since I was 7 ... and once I got [to UC Irvine], I said, ‘I need to keep up on that progression year in and year out.’ I said I was going to start my own martial arts team, but I didn’t feel that I was worthy,” Le Couture said.

“So instead, I asked if I could start a lion dance team to spread the art because when I got to Irvine, there was nothing here,” he continued. “Twenty years ago, there was nothing here. It was just so desolate and ... not a lot of culture and I just wanted to bring [culture] with me.

“Once I got permission, then we started the team with VSA.”

As time went on, the team grew substantially. It started with a skeleton crew of just five people: Le Couture, the head of the lion and the percussionists. Now, the team has about 56 members. The majority are UCI students or alumni, though some members have come out from the community or heard about the group and travel to Irvine from elsewhere to join in.

Meredith Edmonston, 19, a freshman at UCI, stretches in the "forward stance."
Meredith Edmonston, 19, a freshman at UC Irvine, stretches in the “forward stance” as she rehearses with the Gio Nam lion dance team.
(James Carbone)

The lion dance group has performed at small events like weddings and for Lunar New Year, but also have bragging rights for participating in the Rose Parade and Hell’s Kitchen. They’re still in their busiest performance season, which begins in mid-January and ends in late February, though they get booked throughout the year. The team cycles through about 30 lion costumes for their performances.

Bao-linh Nguyen, who graduated from UCI in 2018 but remains with the group as one of its senior-most members, said she got pulled in by one of her friends who was already on the team. Nguyen said she reluctantly agreed to come to the first practice and see what the group was about.

Now she’s been with the team for nearly 15 years and said she stays largely in part because it’s a family in its own right. She also noted it’s like being in a mentorship program, where team members are more than just co-workers and performers.

“Some of these people are my closest friends. They’re going to be at my wedding. I’m going to their weddings,” she said with a smile. “I love lion dance itself and I think the art is beautiful, along with the craftsmanship that goes into every costume. Every school has its own unique style and when you meet somebody who does the art well — they’re really good at drumming or they dance very well— you can tell they have passion. There’s a few [of us] that you know, we’re going to do it for the rest of our lives.”

Performers from the Gio Nam lion dance group dance at the Cerritos Towne Center earlier this year.
(Courtesy of Gio Nam Mua Lan)

No one needs to be an expert when they join the group, Nguyen said.

All training begins with the assumption that people are new to the art, but they need to be versatile enough performers that they could swap into the head, tail or any other needed position for performances.

Ashwath Palavalli, a first-year mechanical engineering student at UCI, said he came from Sacramento, which he described as a diverse enclave where he was enriched by other cultures.

He said he wanted to stay involved in learning about other cultures when he came to Irvine and joined the team after seeing them perform at the campus club fair.

Pictured are some of the members from Gio Nam Mua Lan in 2007.
Pictured are some of the members from Gio Nam Mua Lan in 2007. The group was founded in 2004 and is now celebrating its 20th anniversary.
(Courtesy of Gio Nam Mua Lan)

“I saw that and I was like, ‘Wow, I really want to get involved,’ and so that’s why I joined lion dance. After my first day, it honestly is a really welcoming environment. They teach you a lot about the culture from Day 1 and it’s not only about the dancing, but they teach you about certain practices, traditions with the dancing and it’s a really good experience,” Palavalli said.

For Brandon Duong, a fourth year computer science major, said he also got involved in Gió Nam Múa Lân after seeing them at the club fair. He said he used to do lion dancing as a child, but stopped to focus on his academics.

Hearing the drums, he said, made him feel nostalgic.

“I felt like it was calling me. It was saying, ‘Hey, come back. Do stuff. Spread your culture around. Spread good luck and fortune around. Have fun, do physical activity, all that stuff,’” Duong said. “It was difficult. I used to do sports in high school and middle school, but I stopped for my studies, right? So, when I came back, the lions are much bigger than you think. Because I was younger, the lions were smaller.

Sasha Lin, 19, a student at UC Irvine, right, takes a turn wearing the lion head.
Sasha Lin, 19, a student at the UC Irvine, right, takes a turn wearing the lion head as she rehearses with the Gio Nam Mua Lan at the Social Science Hall quad.
(James Carbone)

“I got as far as ‘Oh, you move this way and this looks like that,’ but the lions here are really big. They’re fancy and long and ... so when you join this team, you have to have the physical strength to show you have energy and portray yourself as a lion. When I first joined, I had a lot of difficulty just moving the head. But over the years, the leaders teach you simple tips and tricks and simple strengthening skills. You just get way better and you’re able to express yourself well.”

All agreed they are willing to set aside time to practice and perform because they care about preserving the art and tradition.

Nguyen said that, as part of the 20th anniversary, they’re planning a trip to Catalina Island for their annual retreat and are considering a digital yearbook for all members, past and present. They also purchased traditional war flags that typically accompany other martial arts schools and lion dance teams.

“We’re hoping we can continue doing this into the future,” Nguyen said. “We’re looking forward to doing more and more crazy stuff — building new props, getting new lion heads and, hopefully, expanding our team.”

Performers from Gio Nam Mua Lan perform a dragon dance at the Hsi Lai Temple in Hacienda Heights.
Performers from Gio Nam Mua Lan perform a dragon dance at the Hsi Lai Temple in Hacienda Heights in early February.
(Courtesy of Gio Nam Mua Lan)