Thai Culture: Basics of Thai Classical Dance

Thai Dancer

Thai Culture: Basics of Thai Classical Dance

When you are on holiday in Thailand you may be lucky enough to see some Thai dancing. It is always so beautiful with exotic costumes and I love it. It’s also a big part of Thai culture and a much effort has been made to keep it alive but also to modernise some of it too.

But what are it’s origins and what type of Thai dance are you watching? In this blog we’ll give you a bit of background to Thai Classical Dancing so that you can distinguish it from Thai Folk Dancing and, well, generally sound savvy to the other tourists around you.

What is the difference between Thai Classical Dance and Thai Folk Dance?

Basically until the 20th Century Thai Classical Dance was only permitted to be performed in the Royal Court but now thankfully it is open to everyone. Thai dancing is either a folk dance or a classical dance and then there’s a couple that fall in between. You will probably recognise a folk dance as being a more relaxed dance, with less elaborate costumes, less makeup, with fresh flowers as long garlands or men with drums…. it’s a bit hard to explain since there are dozens of styles but Wikipedia does an excellent job of listing them.

However, if you are at a resort or at a large show, it is more likely you are watching the Royal Classical Thai Dance style which will showcase dancers in beautiful gold jewellery and headdresses.

Bangkok November 2010

The history of Thai Classical Dance

Thai Classical dance dates back more than 500 hundred years when the area of of present day Thailand, Cambodia and Laos was ruled by various kingdoms, one of the most notable being the Kingdom of Siam. With little tradition of spoken theatre, dance was the main dramatic art form in the whole area. Classical dancers were coveted members of the royal courts and treated with prestige. Their costumes were extravagant and unbelievably expensive. Performances interpreted the folk stories and religious epics of that era, mainly the Thai version of the Indian Ramayana.

There are generally 3 kinds of Thai Classical Dances

 The Kohn Dance of Thailand

 If you attend a big show with lots of performers, musicians, dancers, some dressed as monkeys or devils than you are going to be watching the highest art form of Thai Classical dance, Kohn. Each performance involves many Thai artists including: narrators, performers, dancers, musicians, mask-makers, embroiderers and makeup artists. A huge amount of effort has been made to keep the style authentic and alive. While the uber traditional Kohn included only male dancers in masks, the style has adapted and there are different types of authentic Kohn around, plus creative attempts to make it more modern too.

Traditional Kohn is performed by dancers who mime/dance while the story is being sung or narrated by a chorus. Khon characters include demons, monkeys, humans, nypmhs and gods. One of the classic roles for male dancers is that of the mischievous Hanuman, the Monkey General who comes to the aid of hero of the tale.

Left, Kohn Dance and right, the Thai Fawn fingernail dance

Left, Kohn Dance and right, the Thai Fawn fingernail dance

 The Lakhon Dance of Thailand

Lakhon is less formal than Khon and the dancers do not wear masks. Dancers are usually female and perform as a group rather than representing individual characters. Lakhon plots feature a wider range of stories drawn from the Ramakien, (the Thai Ramayana) the Jatakas and other folk stories. I don’t know too much about Lakhon but here is some great information about all the varieties and the history too.

The Fawn Thai Dance

Another type of Thai Dance, which is part classical/part folk is called ‘Fawn Thai’ This is the most frequently performed dance for tourists because it is more of a small showcase and less of an opera style event. There are 5 types of Fawn dances and my favourite is the fingernail dance. Apparantly there is no story behind these beautiful gold fingernail extensions, they are just worn for their beauty. The costumes are spectacular and echo past Royal Courts.

 The 5 types of Fawn dance are:

Fawn Leb (Fingernails Dance),

Fawn Marn Gumm Ber (Butterfly Dance),

Fawn Marn Mong Kol (Happy Dance),

Fawn Tian (Candle Dance)

Fawn Ngiew (Scarf Dance)

Thai Manohra Dance

Manhora Dance from the South of Thailand

Manhora Dance from the South of Thailand

Finally, in this brief outline of Thai Classical Dance is Manohra is lovely dance that is unique to the south of Thailand and to the North of Malaysia. It is a dance that tells of the famous Jatakas love story between a Prince and Kinnari Manohra a half-bird half-woman. They fall in love and marry. While the prince was away at war, corrupt court advisors trick the king into believing that the sacrifice of Manohra will be prevent his imminent death and so the story is a tragedy.

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Basics of Thai classical dance PI

Pictures courtesy of Flickr.com

Featured image by AlainLimoges, dancer in gold and silver headdress by ThomasQuineedit, YouTube video footage of a Kohn performance by ช่องของ tonnum53, Male and female dancer posing by Akuppa John Wigham, Golden fingernails by Garry Knight and Manora dancer by jkmar1220