Thailand has a special place in my heart, but it wasn’t always that way. I lived in Bangkok for two years from 2002-2004 when I went to The International School of Bangkok (ISB). At the time, I struggled to find a connection to the country and people. I lived in my western bubble and was a perfect mixture of self-conscious and ego-driven, as many teenagers are. A huge blessing for me was all the performing arts offerings. It’s an incredible school! They have extensive dance and arts programs and I am forever grateful for that, my teachers, and the opportunities I had. Those two years before I graduated high school, I threw myself into movement like a kid in a candy store. Odd as it may seem, Thailand is where I fell in love with modern dance, and it’s where I started my formal “dance training”. I realize now that Thailand’s traditional dance styles made a huge impact on the very intentional gesture work in my choreography.
So, backtrack to this past fall (2019) when I decided to visit the Land of Smiles again. I went back in December and stayed for two months. I wouldn’t call it a homecoming, but I would call it a rekindling. I loved being back and exploring the country’s dance scene in ways I didn’t value when I was younger. I mean…I wasn’t all that bad as a teenager, but knowing what I know now, I absolutely have a different appreciation!
THAILAND’S DANCE HISTORY
Thailand has a very rich history. I’ll focus on dance but there is so much more to uncover! The arts have a special place and dance in particular is preserved with intention. Some say it is the most developed art form among Southeast Asian countries. I believe it’s been around for well over over 1000 years.
Dance is the pulse of a countries culture – it’s a proud and living expression of one’s history – and there are many ways to identify Thai dance. Like in many forms of traditional dance, costumes are an elaborate part of the movement and help to enforce the stories being told. In traditional Thai dancing, there are many props and ways to adorn the dancers but gold and silver is used A LOT. Masks are particularly important and make certain styles and storylines clear.
I’m intrigued by the slow and deliberate hand motions, especially when they use brass fingernail extensions. Hypnotically slow, the sway of a hand can be mesmerizing. These hand movements are important to the storyline and help to express specific emotions. And, fun fact, I heard that many of the dance poses are also seen in Thai yoga (Reusi Datton)!
Traditional Thai dancing is commonly broken out into “high art”, also known as the classical style of dancing, and “low art”, which is the folk dancing. It has six different forms (the khon, li-khe, ram wong, shadow puppetry, lakhon lek, and lakhon) and The Culture Trip does a nice job of explaining them. Variations also differ by region, and you can read more about that here.
It’s common to see small troupes of dancers and musicians performing at street market festivals for foreigners, as a way to showcase the art form and raise money for its preservation. Over the last several decades, western culture has an impact on new generations learning old customs, and unfortunately I think Thailand has been a part of this trend. That said, there are still many places to see a wonderfully traditionally show. Here’s a short clip of a young dancer at a street market showcase:
I think it’s important to mention that a major part of current Thai culture can be seen in ladyboy cabarets. The costumes, the drama, the grace, the makeup, and the humor are incredibly impressive, endearing and entertaining. These shows are definitely not to be missed. I may do a whole blog about my feelings on ladyboy cabarets! They are awesome.
What Moved Me
The land and the people. I spent most of my time in the south on Koh Samui, the 3rd largest island in the country. I love how island vibes are pretty consistent throughout the world. I say that because the communities in these locations always seem more laid back and inclusive – and time is relative. The general demeanor places more emphasis on happiness than productivity (which is usually the opposite in fast paced mainland cities). In Thailand in-particular, people go out of their way to make sure you have what you need and that everything is “sabai sabai” (a common phrase for being relaxed). I personally think it has to do with being contained by endless beautiful views of ocean waves and other nearby islands. Having grown up on an island, I understand that mentality. So, I loved my time there and the pace of each day.
Want the breakdown on travel tips for Thailand like where to watch Thai performing arts, the best street markets in Chiang Mai, or how to find secret beaches on Koh Samui? Head over to The Scouts Collective, where I give you all the deets (post coming soon)!
p.s. There are so many beautiful temples in Thailand, but I felt it was disrespectful to do any dance videos in front of them. So I did this little leaf dance, in front of Chiang Mai’s Silver Temple, which felt somewhat acceptable (and hopefully cute!).