Tiptoeing around Thai Traditional Dance

People performing a Thai traditional dance. Thai traditional dance is a graceful and intricate art form that exemplifies the country’s rich cultural heritage.

The waltz. The electric slide. Classical ballet. These are all different forms of dances and they’re all from different eras. Dance is an art form that continues to evolve as society and culture change.

There are certain exceptions, though.

Traditional dances, by their very nature, do not evolve to the same extent as other dances would. They’re meant to stay as close to the original as possible. Thai traditional dance is no different.

Every country in the world has its own traditional dances, many of which vary from one region of the country to another. In Thailand, dance is the main form of dramatic art. Thai dancing is divided into two categories: classical dancing which is seen as high art and folk dancing which is seen as low art.

History of Thai Traditional Dance

The Thai words for dancing are ram and rabam, which are respectively derived from the Old Khmer words ram and rapam. Thai performance art reportedly began taking shape during the Ayutthaya period. A notable example of this was the Chak nak Dukdamban, a ceremony that depicts the churning of the ocean in order to create an immortal spirit. This was performed on special occasions and was influenced by the Indian epic of the Mahabharata.

During the later Ayutthaya period, circa 1456 to 1767, the performance of the ceremony evolved into Khon (masked play), lakhon nok (public dance), and lakhon nai (court dance). Khon and lakhon nai were, for a long time, the two main forms of Thai drama. It wasn’t until likay evolved that common folk were able to access the art form.

A woman wearing a Thai dance costume. Thai dancing isn’t complete without ornate and elaborate costumes that emphasize the beauty and grandeur of the performances.

Thai Classical Dance

There are several kinds and forms of classical Thai dancing, distinguished by their settings, functions, and features that uniquely reflect Thai culture and heritage.

  • The first form of traditional Thai dancing is the Khon. This dance is widely performed all over Thailand and may just be the most recognizable form of dancing from Thailand if you’re an outsider.

    During this dance, performers don an elaborate mask, a Khon, which is an iconic Thai dance costume.

    The dance itself used to only be performed at the Royal Court, for the monarch and his family, but has since become more accessible to the general public.

    The whole performance is less of a pure dance and more akin to a play with a large cast that include animals, artists, narrators, and a lot of liveliness on stage. The traditional Thai dancers themselves, however, do not traditionally speak a single word.

    The show also makes use of props and the battle scenes are usually a high point of the performance. Most dances take their plots inspired from episodes of the Ramakien, the Thai version of the Hindu Ramayana and the Srivijaya from Java.

  • Another type of traditional Thai dance is lakhon. This is similar to the Khon, but is less formal and the dancers do not wear masks. They do however have more lavish stage settings and costumes. The dancers wear costumes that are inspired by the Kingdom of Ayutthaya. The dancing itself is characterized by the lower half of the body being almost completely immobile, with most of the graceful movements performed by the hands and the torso.

    Unlike the more formal Khon, the lakhon takes inspiration from a wilder range of stories and draws from the Ramakies, local folk stories, and the Jatakas, which are stories about the previous incarnations of Siddharta Gautama.

    The lakhon is divided into the aforementioned lakhon nai and lakhon nok. The former is the classical form and is performed in the Royal Palace. The latter is the more popular form and is associated with religious celebrations.

Two performers in silhouette. In Thailand, the shadows dance.
  • Lakhon lek is unique in that the performance isn’t done by humans. People are involved in the performance and the production, but the stars aren’t the humans, animals, or even alive. The lakhon lek is characterized by the use of two-foot tall puppets to act out the performances.

  • The Fawn Thai dance is performed during festivals. There are a number of regional variations; the Fawn tian (the candle dance), the Fawn leb (fingernail dance), the Fawn Ngiew (scarf dance), the Fawn Marn Gumm Ber (butterfly dance), and the Fawn Marn Mong Kol

    The Fawn tian is performed at night by eight dancers. The dancers wear sarongs and jackets, with the female dancers worshiping Buddha to protect the earth.

    The fingernail dance features dancers wearing long, brass fingernails. Female dancers also wear a jasmine flower or an orchid in their hair.

    The scarf dance is specifically for happy events. It has a faster tempo than the fawn leb and, as the name implies, makes use of a scarf. Dancers wear colorful costumes.

Folk Dances

Other than the above, there are also some folk and regional dances. For example, there’s the Wai khru, or the Wai khru ram muay, which is a ritualized dance that is meant to honor the khru, the teacher, and is performed in classical dance institutions and before Muay Thai matches. The Ram muay is another dance that’s performed before Muay Thai matches.

An example of a regional dance is the Ram krabi krabong of Central Thailand. This dance was inspired by ancient combat of Thailand and makes use of short sticks to simulate combat. Krabi karong is also the name of a weapons-based martial art that focuses on the use of the krabi (a curved sword) and the krabong (cudgel).

A popular form of dance in many villages throughout Thailand is Li-khe. These dances are meant to be funny and engaging and combine slapstick humor and sexual innuendo in their performances.

Thai performers in front of a crowd. In Thailand, dance is as much about ritual as it is about movement.

Another popular folk dance is the Ram wong, which means to dance in a circle. This involves men and women coming together to dance slowly and gracefully in a circle. Of all the dances that are traditional to Thailand, this is the most social one.

Thai traditional dance is not just flamboyant costumes or precise body movements. It’s evocative of its ancient heritage, to a time from before Thailand was even called Thailand. It’s about calling back to and honoring that heritage and keeping it alive because heritage is a fundamental part of any culture.

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