The traditional folk dances of Thailand have their roots both in the indigenous tribal cultures and various colonial influences from Burma and Indonesia. The dances are steeped in the traditions of Asian folk dance and renowned for their graceful choreography.
Classical vs. Folk Dance
Dance is an integral part of the culture of Thailand at all levels. Royal patronage of classical forms of dance (known as natasin) has preserved some dances in their original form for centuries. Meanwhile, the rural people have their own forms of folk dance, collectively known as rabam phun muang.
The country itself is divided into four major sections, and each has its own set of folk dances commemorating religious festivals, seasonal activities, or re-telling favorite stories from the Ramayana and other folk tales. According to the Arts section of Thailand.com, the northern dances have movements that emphasize the grace and flow of the dancers, while the southern and northeastern dances tend to have more active and even humorous aspects in their movement. Central Thailand folk dance choreography reflects the agrarian lifestyles of the people. These are generalizations, though, and every region has a wide variety of dance styles.
Many of the dances tell stories from various religious traditions such as the Ramayana, or simply reenact exciting folk tales. For example, in the South the Ram taeng Kae dance portrays a large crocodile (made from the trunk of a banyan tree with candles flickering along its back) which an agile dancer with a harpoon is hunting . In the North there is a sword dance that involves balancing blades on various parts of the dancer's body while fighting off enemies with the sheath.
While they are sometimes performed alongside classical dances, the Fawn Thai are a set of folk dances performed by female dancers that have become famous throughout the world. There are five basic styles:
- Fawn Leb (Fingernails Dance)
- Fawn Tian (Candle Dance)
- Fawn Marn Gumm Ber (Butterfly Dance)
- Fawn Ngiew (Scarf Dance)
- Fawn Marn Mong Kol (Happy Dance)
Each of these dances has its own particular musical accompaniment by traditional Thai instruments and singers, usually five to seven musicians accompanying four to six dancers. The costumes are traditional, simply-cut sarongs and shoulder-cloths with some minor variation in color depending on the region the dancer comes from. These dances also often have props (like the fans in Japanese and Korean fan dance) such as long brass fingernail extensions for the Fawn Leb or lit candles for the Fawn Tian.
Other Forms of Thai Folk Dance
Like any folk art, Thai dance is constantly changing and evolving as new influences are brought into the culture. Fawn Thai is the most well-known set of traditional folk dances, but there are other kinds that are just as much a part of the heritage of Thailand.
Likay is a form of dance that has its roots in the Muslim religion. The form includes many comedic and cartoon-like elements, with the dancers hamming it up as they perform original stories as well as traditional favorites. Likay performances are most often seen at village festivals for the entertainment of all ages. Unlike many of the Fawn Thai dances, the costumes can be either traditional or contemporary or even a mixture of the two.
Ram Muay is a dance rooted in another cultural tradition of Thailand: the sport of Muay Thai (kickboxing). At the beginning of a match the fighter performs a ram muay which is an exhibition of his prowess, skill, and grace. The moves range from very simple and slow to highly complex choreography that is almost too fast to follow, and often include clues and tributes to their past teachers or training styles. These dances (also known as wai khru) are usually performed on each side of the ring before each match.
Teaching the Tradition
Thai dance is taught by both professional teachers in large classical schools and at various cultural centers in smaller cities and villages. While there have been many changes due to global influences, there are still many places to see the traditional folk dances performed by touring companies or even simply via YouTube clips. With centuries of dance tradition to draw from, the folk dances of Thailand are a treasure for both dancers and audience members to enjoy.