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Burmese Traditional Dance

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History of Burmese Dance

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 repertory.

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 Mingyaw.

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 Spirit.

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 of Spirits.

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.

Bagan Dance

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 Nat.

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 persistence.

Acknowledgement: Much of the description above is credited to the program notes of the Mintha Theatre in Mandalay.

Traditional State Dances

The Latklai Htongka Dance (Kachin State)

The Latklai Htongka Dance is a modern adaptation of the choreography of the traditional Kachin dance 'the Htongka'. It is an innovation which also preserves the traditional. It is a selection of the best features of the dances performed at new year, house-warming parties, harvest time and weddings. It is a sprightly dance to the accompaniment of the Ozi (pot drum), hence it is also commonly known as "traditional Kachin pot drum dance". Cymbals, gongs and flutes are played to the beat of the pot drum. One cannot but admire the art, the spirit and the grace of the Kachin dance.

Diku Dance (Kayah State)

It is a dance performed by the Kayah people at their traditional cultural festival of worship. The Diku festival is held every year during the month of Thadingyut. The festival is held to pray for a bountiful harvest with a full yield of crops which has been spared pests and other dangers. Glutinous rice is boiled after being placed inside packets made of traingular-shaped leaves. Three to five packets are joined together and boiled. Traingular-shaped leaves wrapped around glutinous rice symbolises the united efforts of parents, children and friends. Offerings are made of these packets of glutinous rice together with the local brew. Relatives and friends from far and near are also entertained with these. Afterwards, men and women who have come to participate in the Diku festival join hands to dance to the music of drums, gongs and flutes. In this dance one can see the unity, co-ordination, collective work, kinship, hardiness, courage, and endurance of the Kayah people.

Kayin Doan Dance (Kayin State)

If one were to name the dance which best represents the life and beauty of the Kayin people, it is the Doan dance. It is a joyful and gay collective dance which symbolizes solidarity. The Doan is presented ensemble and is performed at a quick tempo.

Forefathers said that the Kayin Doan dance originated from collective social work. In modern times, there have been adaptations to the Doan dance. In the Doan dance, not only are dance movements important but the songs must also be meaningful.

The Sawng Vat Dance (Chin State)

Chin Nationals have realized the bountiful wealth of the motherland and felt a deep gratitude towards it since their time of settlement. They have performed the Sawng Vat dance with firm determination to live together in wealth and woe. The Sawng Vat dance is the oldest Chin dance. It is usually performed at times when tasks and undertakings are successful, as a token of gratitude to the motherland. The Sawng Vat Dance of the Chins portrays the honest simplicity and the sense of unity of the Chin people and their loyalty to the Union.

Sama Gwek (Traditional Duet Dance) (Mon State)

The Sama Gwek Dance has been performed inside palaces since early Suwunna Bumi period. Before the enlightenment of the Buddha, the dancers danced, singing songs glorifying the king, the queen, princes and princesses. After the enlightenment of the Buddha, they danced to songs depicting the greatness of the Buddha in riddles. With the passage of time, this dance moved from the palace to town, from town to village. The songs sung in competition have been about the greatness of the Buddha, about love and romance. The musical instruments used in this dance are the crocodile-shaped guitar, the violin, the flute, drums, a small cymbal and a clap.

The Dance of Pilgrimage to the Sandaw Shin Pagoda (Rakhine State)

In the Rakhine State, pagodas can be seen on top of most hills. Of these pagodas, the Sandaw Shin Pagoda (wherein Buddha's hair is enshrined) located on top of Nilar Paba hill on Phayonkar penisula at the mouth of the Kaladan River, is an especially famous and historic pagoda. This pagoda was renovated by King Sanda Thuriya and was successively maintained by Kings throughout periods of history which include the Wesali period. During the Mrauk-U period, Chief Queen Soemai, wife of King Phalaung, undertook the renovation of the pagoda. She performed great acts of charity in honor of the occasion. A pagoda festival was also held. The festival of the Sandaw Shin Pagoda is still held every year during the month of Nataw. The group dance invites other nationals of the Union to join the people of the Rakhine State in a pilgrimage to the pagoda. The group dance is performed to traditional Rakhine songs in order to portray the history of the Pagoda.

The Kinnari and Kinnara Dance (Shan State)

The Kinnari and Kinnara duet dance is performed on auspicious occasions and charities, Kahtain ceremonies, eating-the-new-crop-festivals and festivals which mark the beginning and end of Buddhist lent and others, to the accompaniment of music made by drums, gongs etc. The Shan people never get monotonous from watching the Kinnari and Kinnara bird dance which never fails to delight the audience. The duet dance of the couple amidst woods and forests attempts to imitate the movements of birds. The movements of a bird's body, its wings, its legs, etc. form the basic dance movements. This dance can never fail to thrill the audience.

Myanmar Folk Dances

Myanmar folk dances developed together with folk music and songs. As Myanmar is an agricultural country the majority of its people are peasants and their cultural performances reflect their occupation and daily life style. Just as their folk music and songs present and describe their daily chores, so also their folk dances mimic their production activities. Most or possibly all Myanmar folk dances are group dances performed on communal occasions.

 

Ouzi (Ozi) dance is a dance performed by the ouzi drum players to the accompaniment of folk music and folk songs by a band of at least four instrumentalists namely an ouzi, drum player, an oboe player, a cymbals player, and bamboo clapper player. The ouzi dancer plays the ouzi drum as he dances. He also sings and when he is tired, the cymbals player or bamboo clapper player takes over. Ouzi dance steps are quick and movements are jerky. Solo and chorus singing alternate. The lyrics of the ouzi song describes the special occasion for performing the ouzi dance, the locality and the pagoda festival which it commemorates. The essential feature of ouzi dance is the chanting of "Thangja" (thangyat) which is an antiphonal chant usually amusing or satirical sung to the accompaniment of ouzi. The ouzi dance is performed on all happy and joyous occasions. This folk dance creates a boisterous and pastoral festive atmosphere. 

Douba (Dobat) dance, another folk dance is performed with the same band of musicians as in the ouzi dance. The only difference between ouzi and douba dances is the type of drum played by the dancers. Douba is a double face drum slung by means of a strap on the neck of the player. Ouzi is an elongated one-faced drum with a long body and open-ended tail or leg. It is slung on the shoulder of the player. Thangja is also chanted in douba dance. The douba waing (douba party or band) is one of the most hilarious folk dances. It is performed at the pagoda festival and the novitiation ceremony. It is also a must when people gather to give community services or contribute voluntary labour such as digging water wells and tanks, building roads, repairing public and religious buildings. The douba dance can agitate and also inspire the public.

Bjo (Byaw) performance follows as a signal before announcing the conclusion of a religious deed, especially alms-giving, donation, or novitiation or ordination ceremonies. Normally no dance is performed because bjo music is monotone and constant. But in some villagers some adults and even the aged, particularly the donors, because they are overwhelmed with rapture and joy over their deed of religious merit, are drawn into the dance to the bjo beat. The bjo dance developed as a consequence of these impromtu performances.

Boun gyi dance is performed in Upper Myanmar. It originated in Shwebo at the beginning of the Kon-baung dynasty (A.D. 1752-1885). It is staged by the owner of paddy land and participated by the cultivators. It is performed at planting and harvesting times. Boun gyi dance is slow and the music and song accompanying it are also slow. But the boun gyi’s sound is reverberating due to the blend of the clash of big brass cymbals and the boom of the drum beat. 

Naban Zan dance is another folk dance that is the favorite of Myanmar rural folks. The name is derived from the hair style fashionable among youngsters in olden days. Tufts of hair are tied on either side of the head to hang over the ear. The dancer is a boy of early teen with a naban zan hair style, circular paint of thanakha make-up on his cheeks, dressed like a young boy of old days and wearing a round "gold" pendant, "gold" bangles and anklets. He dances and prances boyishly to the percussion music played by a band of five to seven instrumentalists. This dance is staged on festive occasions, particularly for fund raising for social welfare and religious works. 

 

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