Thai dance

One of the most fascinating arts in the diverse arts and culture of Thailand is Thai classical dance. Visitors don't really feel they have seen Thailand until they've witnessed at least one performance of Thai classical dancing, although most of them do not understand what they see.

Thai Dance, known as "Fawn Thai", was originally an art performed for the royal courts of old Siam. The dance troupes were formed within the courts and their precision and beauty was the highlight of every performance. Today, although "Fawn Thai" is still a very important part of royal performances, the dancers are selected and trained from among the general population and dance performances themselves are often an event for the general public.

"Fawn Thai” in its many forms is usually performed by four to six pairs of dancers, and on some very important occasions it is performed by hundreds. There are five “Fawn Thai” styles: “Fawn Tian” or the Candle Dance; “Fawn Leb” or the Finger nail Dance; “Fawn Ngiew” or the Scarf Dance; “Fawn Marn Gumm Ber” or the Butterfly Dance; and “Fawn Marn Mong Kol” or the Happy Dance. Each of these is accompanied by a special orchestra of traditional Thai musical instruments and each has its distinctive tempo and movement.

The dance costumes are rich in color and style and vary from region to region. Along with the choreography, uniformity of step and movement by the dancers, performances are appreciated more for their artistic quality than for any meaning or message. The stately beauty of “Fawn Thai” in its five styles is most important.

The accoutrements of the dancers as they perform project a special flare and highlight hand movements, an essential feature of Thai Dance. In the “Fawn Tian”, for example, dancers hold lighted candles, while in the “Fawn Leb” they wear six-inch-long brass nails. In the three others they make use of various lengths of scarves. The “Fawn Tian” and the “Fawn Leb” were once sacred dances performed at court functions on days of special festivals. Because of their special significance and the similarity of accompanying instruments, they were usually performed on the same day.

The “Fawn Tian” or Candle Dance consists of four pairs of dancers carrying lighted candles in each hand. The choreographed stage position is usually four on the right and four on the left in an inverted wing formation with the traditional Thai orchestra at the wing-point behind. Dressed in full-length sarongs and jackets with a matching shoulder cloth, the eight female dancers wear floral headpieces and hold the candles between thumb and forefinger.

The movement is gentle and slow with short steps and stately swaying of the shoulders and upper torso. This dance is always held at night and the slow graceful movement of the dancers with the candle flames flickering gently as they sway is a hypnotic and mesmerizing spectacle.

The “Fawn Leb” or Fingernail Dance usually consists of five pairs of dancers, each wearing six-inch-long brass fingernails. Dance movements often vary from province to province, but the choreographed stage position of performers in this dance is more fluid and both arm and head movement more robust. The elongated fingernails accentuate the classic hand movements of Thai Dance and in parts of the performance one or more pairs dance from a kneeling position at the front of the stage. Costumes are more varied in terms of color, although these too differ according to region.

The orchestra for both the “Fawn Tian” and the “Fawn Leb” consists of five to seven musicians playing the traditional Siamese instruments of the Glong Aw, the Bpee Mon, the Mon Tapone, the Glong Talod, the Sharb Yai, the Shing and the Mong. The orchestra is always seated in the traditional lotus position with the player of the Ranad, a long xylophone-like instrument, in the center and the others around him. Their dress is the simple color and fabric of the province, in Chiangmai, blue for example; and their position on stage is either to rear or to the side of the dancers.

Classical Thai dance performances are largely based on the portrayal of ancient myths and religious stories. Khon, the classical Thai performance play, animates Thai mythological stories through a series of dances, with characters wearing intricate masks displaying different emotions or characteristics.

Masked dancers who never speak perform the Khon dance, with its classic theme. The story always revolves round the Ramakien epic (the Thai version of the Indian Ramayana) and is told in verse by singers behind the scenes. Khon characters include demons, monkeys, humans and celestial beings. Today, only the dancers portraying the demon and monkey roles wear masks.

Each Khon mask has its own unique features and colors which help to identify specific characters. Normally, the good guys wear the white hats and, in this case, a dancer wearing a white mask, is a Hanuman, a virtuous monkey character.

Lakhon dance drama is less formal than Khon and the actors do not wear masks. Lakhon plots are drawn mainly from the Ramakien, the Jatakas, and folk stories. Lakhon dance movements are graceful, sensual, and fluid, the upper torso and hands being particularly expressive with conventionalized movements portraying specific emotions.

The Lakhon can be divided into three types, namely Lakhon Chatri, Lakhon Nok, and Lakhon Nai.

Simplest of all in form and presentation, Lakhon Chatri is often seen at popular shrines, such as Bangkok’s City Pillar where dancers are hired to perform for the shrine deity by supplicants whose wishes have been granted. Lakhon Nai drama was originally presented only by court ladies in the palace.

It is graceful, romantic, and highly stylized. Lakhon Nok plays, on the other hand, are performed outside the palace and acted only by men. Filled with lively music, off color humor, and rapid, animated movements. Lakhon Nok is the ancestor of the enormously popular Li-ke folk theater, which is still a feature of many provincial festivals.

Other traditional dances include two forms that originated in the South of Thailand. Nang Yai and Nang Talung are shadow shows done with puppets behind a backlit white screen, while Li-ke, is a pantomime with a narrative prelude.

These classical Thai Dance performances can be seen today at various artistic and cultural centers in the country. In Chiangmai, the performances are held at the Old Chiangmai Cultural Center, Imperial Mae Ping Hotel outdoor garden theatre show and Chiangmai’s Night Bazaar area Galare Food Center.