The Thai Dance is a graceful and interpretative performance. It has played an indispensable part of Thai life from historical times to the present day. Thai dance is closely intertwined with the beliefs, traditions and customs of Thailand and is therefore important to the lives of the people. It has been kept alive through royal patronage in a continuous line of succession through the Sukhothai, Ayutthaya and Rattanakosin periods.
Thai dancing may be divided into two major styles: folk dance (‘rabam phun muang’) and classical dance (‘natasin’). Each of the four regions of Thailand has its own folk dances that are usually associated with agricultural and social activities, such as rice planting, harvesting, festivals, and religious celebrations. Basically, northern folk dances are elegant and graceful while the dances of the South and Northeast are more active and fun-filled, but still retain the fundamental grace of Thai dancing in general. Central and eastern dances are clearly linked to the agrarian lifestyles of the people.
From the basic movements of folk dances, classical Thai dance further refined the elaborate hand gestures, arm and leg movements that are able to captivate audiences to this day.
Classical Thai Dancing
The history of Thai drama has generally been treated as a part of the study of Thai literature, culture and customs. The earliest literary references to Clasical Thai dancing appeared in the stone inscription of Phor Khun Ramkhamhaeng, the third king of the Sukhothai Kingdom.
The monarchy plays an important role in the development, enrichment and patronization of dramatic art in Thailand. The golden era of clasical Thai dancing and drama was during the reigns of King Boromakot in the Ayutthaya period and King Rama II in the Rattanakosin period.
In the reign of King Rama VI (King Vajiravudh), classical Thai dancing-drama was influenced by western civilization and culture. He wrote, produced and directed plays, dances and dramas during that period. Modern dance-drama, ‘lakhon phut’ (spoken drama) and ‘lakhon rong’ (sung drama) was introduced as a way to prepare the Thai people for the modern world.
Thai dancers hold their bodies upright from the neck to the hips, moving up and down using only their knees, and stretching to the rhythm of the music. The arms and hands in Thai dancing are held in curves at different levels, but do not point like ballet. The beauty of the dancers depends on how well these curves and angles are maintained in relation and proportion to the whole body.
The actors mime the story line and lyrics provided by a singer and chorus off-stage. Traditionally, there are 108 basic movements, which are different for men and women. In order to perform well in the dance-drama, dancers have to learn the language of gestures. Although there are strict patterns of movements to follow, dancers can still explore their individual talents as creative artists.
Thai dramas were usually performed for royal entertainment and on special occasions such as birthdays, welcoming ceremonies, cremations or simply at the wish of the patron. Various types of drama and folk dances were performed, but most popularly the ‘khon’, ‘lakhon’ and ‘hun’. Nowadays, many of the older performances have all but disappeared, like the ‘kula ti mai’ (the ceremonial baton dance) or the ‘mongkhrum’ (the ceremonial drum dance).