THAI DANCING AND THAI TRADITIONAL COSTUMES
By Rhiannon Caldwell
Thailand is the first international destination I ever travelled to. I had six hours in the Suvarnabhumi airport as I waited for my connection from Bangkok to Koh Samui. I was changing airlines so I had collected my baggage already and was spending time in the lobby. I was astounded at the amount of artwork on the walls. Beautiful costumes in bright colors and shiny gold. Traditional dancers depicted in paintings and sculptures, the hands of the women impossibly flexible in positions I never would have thought possible but I have witnessed it first hand now. The airport literally oozed with artistic talent and after three and a half years in the Kingdom I have come to realize that art is woven into the very fabric of the society of Thai people.
Types of Dance in Thailand
There are essentially three types of dance in Thai culture: Khon, Lakhon, and Fawn Thai. The Khon style is more like a play set to music and communicated through the art of dance. The dancers wear elaborate costumes and the cast of characters can be mythical demons, celestial beings, monkeys, buffalo and of course people. There is a distinct storyline told through dance and most feature from the time of Ramakien, Thai style Ramayana, and the Indian Epic. Lakhon style is less formal, and the dancers faces are not hidden by masks as they are in Khon style. Lakhon is mostly performed by female dancers and the movements are more fluid, graceful and even sensual. The dance is performed as a group rather than individually. The last style is Fawn Thai which is folk style dancing and there are further subsets of Fawn Thai that are specific to regions. These are the classic provincial dances.
My first job in Thailand was as a Kindergarten English Teacher. In the morning from 8:00 am to 8:30 am the entire Kindergarten student body would gather in front of the flag pole. Approximately 300 students would line up by class in lines to sing the national anthem, and then participate in morning stretches, singing, dancing, and on Fridays Thai Massage. Fridays were my favorite because not only did the kids learn Thai massage techniques but they also wore Thai traditional costumes to school.
Students from Teacher Jan’s class on the Friday before Loi Krathong with their Krathong art projects wearing their Thai traditional uniforms for school. These students are in Kindergarten 2 at Supaluck School in Suphan Buri a small suburb about 100 km north of Bangkok. The material for the uniforms is 100% cotton. They breathe well and when one sweats the material will help keep you cool when the breeze hits. The cotton also dries incredibly fast making it an ideal material for working in the rice fields. The style works well in the rivers and lakes as the pants and skirts can be tied up higher to keep out of the water.
As well as the Fridays where the kids wore traditional style dress, there are several holidays throughout the year when both the students and teachers dress up in traditional costumes. Schools typically host a fancy dress day at some point during the year too. This is usually an after hours affair where the staff get together and don traditional garb, or sometimes impersonate Thai superheroes, rock stars and more. Thais enjoy laughing at and with each other and they love to ham things up. I find they are very receptive if you are willing to laugh at yourself and you will score major points if you let them dress you up in their traditional costumes.
Fancy Day Supaluck School 2012 Teacher Nuey, Teacher Ri Ri, and Teacher Jan all dressed in traditional Thai costumes.
Sportsday is another day where the costumes come out in full force. Sports day is typically a 2-3 day event each school hosts where the schools are broken into teams and they all compete against one another. On a Saturday a parade is held with traditional Thai music and many of the students don special attire that day. The traditional costumes include fancy headdresses, gloves, batons, and lots of shiny fabrics and sequins.
Dance Competitions & Recitals
Schools love to host recitals and competitions showcasing Thai dances. Traditional costumes are used and the choreography comes from dances that have been danced for generations. There are dances that call the rain, dances that pay homage to Buddha, dances to thank the mighty river for providing life to the people, and dances done to celebrate when a new monk is raised to monkhood. Dancing takes place at temples, at schools, and sometimes just in the streets or at homes. Thai people love to dance, and they love music, and they love for everyone to participate.
Schools will have children perform choreographed dance numbers from the ages of 3 and beyond. Coordinating costumes and dance moves appropriate for the celebration and age group. Each class will perform a routine, and there will also be performances by students who particularly excel. Sometimes this means a solo number with dancers performing behind the soloist, and sometimes this means a dance troupe performing an ancient dance that has been passed down generation after generation.
If all the dancing at school is not enough extra curricular dancing is alive and well in Thailand and quite popular. Both traditional and modern dances are choreographed to both modern and traditional music. Some of the music is a mere 100 years old and some reaches much further back into history. Some of these dances actually tell stories and show historical events passed on to the people by the people through dancing.
It is not uncommon to find a temporary stage set up near a night market in any small town across Thailand. You will be delighted witnessing dancers of all ages, and some who are quite skilled. The costumes are colorful, the music is fun and fast, and the show is in a word, amazing.
Most of the traditional costumes worn by men, women and children consist of pieces of fabric that can be worn in several different ways. The pieces are draped, folded, tied, and pulled into position depending on what the occasion is and who is wearing it.
The best places to view Khon style dancing are Thai temples close to major holidays. Thai history and folklore is communicated to the people when they gather at temple with family and friends. There is no need to understand the language of Thai to understand the stories told through this traditional dance style.
Regardless of what style you have the opportunity to see Thai dancing is fun to watch especially when paired with the traditional costumes. The art comes to life in Thailand and the people ensure it stays that way.