History of Burmese
The origins of Burmese Dance are traced to the Pyu, Halin,
and Mon cultures in the central and lower Ayeyarwaddy regions
from at least two centuries before the Christian era. The
archeological evidence shows Indian influences already in this
period. There were also influences from Thai and Khmer cultures
during the many invasions and counter-invasions that occurred
over the next two millennia. There was a particularly well
documented infusion of dance forms in 1767, when the Burmese
sacked Ayudhya and expropriated a large component of the Thai
court. Nonetheless, some of the surviving forms honour folklore
characters that are quintessentially Burmese, some of these from
pre-Buddhist times. There is also a close relationship between
the classical Burmese marionette and human dance art forms, with
the former obviously imitating human dance, but also with human
dance imitating the awkwardness of the marionette.
After independence from Britain in 1948, there was a period of
strong Burmese cultural nationalism that resulted in the
foundation of The State School of Music in Mandalay in 1953. A
well-known dancer of the day, Oba Thaung (age 55), is credited
with codifying the nearly completely undocumented Burmese dance
Zawgyi the Alchemist’s Dance
Zawgyi is a Myanmar folk character adept in the art of
alchemy. He is said to have gained his supernatural skills
through occult means. He inhabits thick forests near the
Himalaya where he forages herbs for magical purposes. After
searching for many years he obtained the Philosopher’s stone and
thereby gained Zawgyi-hood. Sometimes, with a touch of his magic
wand he brings to life “illusory females” from trees bearing
female-shaped fruits in order fulfill his carnal wishes.
The dance illustrates Zwagyi going about the forest, prancing
with his wand, pulverizing herbs and gamboling in jubilation
after acquiring the Stone.
The Spirit Boozer U Mingyaw Dance
U Mingyaw, alias Pakhan Kyaw, is a well-known Myanmar Spirit.
There are a few different versions of his biography. One is
that, being an adept horseman and son of a trusted royal
guardian; he was knighted and given the Count-ship of the
country town of Pakhan in central Myanmar. However, once in
office he indulged himself in drinking, gambling (especially
cock fighting), and in womanizing. He eventually had the
audacity to dethrone and execute the king and others, including
two young brothers, sons of a nobleman. These two brothers
became famous Spirits (Nats) and went on to long careers of
mischief. However, in their very first act, the two brothers
used their new powers to pay back the Count in his own coin,
causing the Count’s murder and his return as the Spirit U
When he takes on his human form, U Mingyaw takes relish in
drinking toddy, the sap of the palmyra tree (aka the “toddy
palm”). His favorite hors-d’oeuvre, to go along with sap is
fried chicken or fowl. Therefore the most effective propitiation
is thought to be a pot of toddy and a fried fowl. Petitioners
believe that U Mingyaw will fulfill any wish that is made to him
during his trance, although he usually expects a commission.
In a typical performance, the Medium appeals to U Mingyaw by
presenting him with a bottle of liquor in one hand and a fried
fowl in the other. The dancer copies the drunken style of the
The Dance of the Guardian Spirit
of Mount Popa
According to Burmese folklore (but probably based on
quasi-historical facts), Mai Wunna, a beautiful blonde princess
was a sister of the king of Thaton in lower Myanmar
(contemporary with Bagan - 11/12th century). Estranged from her
brother, she refused betrothal to a royal descendent and lived
in exile and alone in the forests of Mt. Popa (a small mountain
of great historical significance near Pagan). As a devout
Buddhist she abstained from eating meat and lived solely on
flowers and fruits. She generally wore the mask of a demon to
frighten away foes and friends alike. Thus she was reputed to be
a flower-eating demon.
Later she fell in love with a royal dispatcher of fantastic
physique, and begot two able sons with him. Unfortunately, her
spouse was then executed for being derelict in fetching flowers
from the mount. As a result, he became a Spirit.
Mai Wunna’s two sons, when they grew up, became distinguished
heroes in the Royal Army. Unfortunately they fell victim to an
intrigue, were executed for pretence, and became transformed
into the two famous Spirits, the “Brother Nats” of Taung-Byone.
However that was not the end of it. The bad tidings of her sons’
untimely deaths caused Mai Wunna to die of heartbreak. So she
became a Spirit as well and became duly enshrined at Mt. Popa,
where she became “Super-Exalted” to supreme power in the Realm
The dancer, clad traditionally in regal apparel of green color,
impersonates the Spirit. On her head is perched the mask of a
demon. In her hands, she holds two quills of a peacock’s tail,
the symbol of the sun, in order to banish Darkness (the evil
element). She dances as an apparition with grace and subtlety.
Belu Dance (Dance of the Demon)
The Belus (demons) are ancient characters, thought to
originate from a legendary race that roamed India and Myanmar
about 2000 BC. Buddhist literature describes them as primitive
and feared by other races.
In literature, the Belus are described as having transmogrifying
powers - an ability to take on different physical appearances.
There are 24 different classical demon forms, each with its own
name and role in stories and plays. One of the best known is
Dasa-Giri, a demon in the Indian Ramayana epic.
In any of his forms, the Belus embodies the Devil. He is
terrifying, overbearing and diabolical by nature. But he has a
gentle side also. In a typical dance, Dasa-Giri often offers a
bouquet of flowers to a dainty damsel. The demure lady is unable
to overlook the beastly side and declines his darling present.
The demon then expresses his dejection at the refusal.
This dance originates from the time of the Pyu kingdoms
(5th-10th centuries). A small number of relatively crude musical
instruments were used and the dance style is slow and sedate.
The costumes of dancers, as depicted in wall paintings, were
scanty and revealing.
Dance of the Spirit Medium (Nakadaw)
In Myanmar, it is traditional to make an offering of a green
coconut, three hands of bananas, and a few other accessories, to
the Guardian Spirit of Land (a Nat) prior to an important event
such as an inauguration. This appeasement of the Spirit is
usually done by a professional Spirit Medium (Nakadaw).
The dancer is often attired in red silk, including a red
headband and, around the chest, and a tightly knotted red scarf.
With the offerings on a tray, she or he dances in propitiation
and repeats the sequence three times. As Medium dances she sings
ritual songs to the 37 National Nats (Spirits) and the Local
At the onset, the dance is delicate and the music legato. After
a verbal injunction, the dancer quickens to the rising intensity
of the music. As the Medium enjoins the Spirits, the movements
and the music reach a frenzied crescendo.
Dance of the Mythical Bird Couple
Kinnara and Kinnari
There are many references in the Pali and Sanskrit literature
to the mythical birds with human head and torso, Kinnara (male)
and Kinnari (female). According to the literature, the birds
originated in prehistoric India. They appear in some of the
discourses of the Lord Buddha himself.
In Myanmar, images of the Bird’s dancing styles are found
painted and carved on the walls at Bagan and (even earlier) from
the Pyu kingdoms.
The songs and dances describe the Bird’s happy re-union after a
separation of 700 nights due to a heavy rainstorm and floods.
The dance is a popular emblem of true love and has an ancient
history that is kept alive by the Myanmar dance troupes.
The dancers are attired with flapping wings at their wrists, in
contrast to wings at their armpits, as is characteristic of
Thailand and other Asian countries. The dance of bird-like
movements is very supple and fine, and intricately coordinated
with the accompanying music.
Dance of Rama in Pursuit of the
Charming Golden Deer
In 1767, King Sinyushin of the Konboung Dynasty brought back
Siamese captives to the Inwa (Ava) capital. Among the captives
were Siamese court dancers who performed the Ramayana (Yama-Zat
Taw) wearing masks.
In this epic, Rama is the hero and chief character, Sita is the
heroine, and Dasa-Giri is the villain demon. In a typical
segment, Rama is enticed away by the Golden Deer, who is a
transmogrified form of the demon sister of Dasa-Giri. Dasa-Giri
himself is metamorphed as a Hermit. Rama is then seen gravely
following the tracks of the alluring Deer. The Deer leaves
subtle hints as a trail.
Duet Dance of the Zat Pwe
All-night performances, which combine melodrama, slapstick,
traditional dance, and even pop music, are called “Zat Pwe” in
Myanmar. These seasonal events are staged in enclosed temporary
bamboo theatres and are typically part of annual fund raising
activities at Pagoda festivals. The performers are traveling
troupes, usually several dozen professional male and female
dancers, musicians, comedians, and actors. These troupes travel
widely throughout the country. The Duet Dance, a standard part
of the Zat Pwe, typically starts near 2 or 3AM, and has duration
of about two hours.
Generally the lead actors dance with the lead actresses. The
male dancers make a display, often with highly athletic and
inventive elements. The male and female dancers sing in duet and
exchange lover’s vows.
There is often a competitive aspect to see who in the troupe can
win the favor of the loudest cheers. During all of this, the
orchestra must synchronize to the action occurring on the stage.
When done with excellence, this dance can create national fame
for the troupe.
Dance of the Religious Devotees
with Oil Lamps
The traditional oil lamp that is offered to the Lord Buddha
is a lighted wick of cotton soaked in an oil-filled earthenware
saucer. A lighted candle now usually substitutes in its place.
The performer’s hands are always upturned (to retain the oil).
Elders who remember performing with traditional lamps say that
the secret is to not let the lamp drop while, at the same time,
conveying particular expressions with various attitudes of the
hands and legs. “It is almost an ordeal”, they added.
Jolly Joker Dance of U Shwe Yoe
and Daw Moe
Rather than a classic, this dance is an example of
contemporary Myanmar folk art. The dance has appeared out of the
custom of entertaining the crowd, especially volunteers taking
part in Flag Days or at community charitable activities. Its
purpose is to inspire people to donate and to do meritorious
deeds for the betterment of next lives.
The names U Shwe Yoe and Daw Moe are fictitious (not part of any
classic text) and chosen for their rhyming effect. There is no
established melody for the dance. Instead the orchestra
improvises any lively tune, or recorded music is sometimes used.
Enthusiastic citizens with no formal dance training often
perform. The roles are one Old Bachelor (U Shwe Yoe) and one
Spinster (Daw Moe), the latter played by either a male or female
dancer. The choreography is spontaneous and designed to give the
audience the best medicine.
The costumes are bizarre and flamboyant, with the indispensable
elements of Shwe Yoe’s (independently animated) moustache and a
twirling parasol from the delta town of Pathien. In a jocular
manner, he emotes his love and makes a pass at Daw Moe, while
she responds evasively and artfully. The audience, often mostly
children and old folk, clap loudly and encourage Shwe Yoe in his
Acknowledgement: Much of the description above is
credited to the program notes of the Mintha Theatre in