Lay Nyaing is an Master Folk Artist from the Karen ethnic group in Burma, and was born in Thailand in 1993. Like many Karen at that time, his family survived violent conflict and was forced to flee from the Burmese military. The only place they found safety was in the Thai refugee camp where he spent his first 18 years. He had very limited access to education, resources, or freedom to travel outside the camp. Dance was something that brought him joy and gave his life meaning. The Don Dance focuses on unity for displaced Karen people, and Lay Nyaing dances for peace and harmony. Lay Nyaing learned how to dance from Der Lwia, a teacher in the Thai refugee camp. He became an expert in the Don Dance, performed specifically for the Karen New Year in January of each year. He was identified in the camp as being especially skillful and has been teaching his peers and others for the past eight years.
Lay Nyaing was resettled to Utica, NY in 2012. Unfortunately, he was denied the right to a high school education because of the policies of the Utica City School district that discriminate against older teens who do not have strong English skills. He studied ESL briefly in the Newcomer program, but left that relatively quickly because of the need to support his family. Currently, he works in light manufacturing. He is credited by his community for the recent revitalization of the art of the Don Dance locally. It takes about six months out of every year to practice and teach new dancers how to perform this complex and beautiful traditional Karen art, so much of his time here has been dedicated to this activity and art form. During the practice season, he typically teaches dance for about 25 hours a week. Last year, his troupe performed in Albany, Syracuse, and Hartford, CT, where they were warmly welcomed. The Utica Karen Don Dancers are organized through a local Buddhist group and are made up of Karen dancers from different religions, ages, language groups, and refugee camps.