Dancing towards the future
Dancing towards the future
An ancient and colourful performance unique to the Tai Yai people is receiving a new lease of life
Story by CHOMPOO TRAKULLERTSATHIEN, Pictures by SOMKID CHAIJITVANIT
The king kala dance has played a vital role in the Tai Yai community for centuries. Traditionally, it is performed on Ok Pansa, the day that marks the end of the three-month Buddhist Lent, to welcome Lord Buddha back to Earth after his visit to heaven.
The sleepy hamlet of Ban San Paa Kor in Chiang Rai province wakes as the rhythmic sound of traditional gongs, tom-toms and cymbals fills the air. The atmospheric sounds herald the start of the ram nok king kala (king kala dance) which is unique to the Tai Yai people, an ethnic group originally from Burma.
Clad in eye-catching costumes that evoke the colours and patterns of peacocks, two performers enthral spectators with graceful and agile steps. The ``male peafowl'' ostentatiously struts around, displaying his brilliant tail in order to attract the ``female peacock'' who hops back and forth, to left to right. The merriment escalates as two lion dancers show up to do high jumps.
At the end of the show there is thunderous applause. Mana (Tai Yai people don't have surnames), a native of Shan State in Burma, is delighted with his young student performers. He teaches this ancient dance to youngsters at a weekly early-morning class, and village elders always come to give encouragement. Their children's success is not just of this moment _ it's a sign that Tai Yai cultural heritage may yet survive.
Thailand has been home to Tai Yai communities for hundreds of years. In recent times, thousands more have crossed into this country to escape the Burmese military presence in Shan State.
Here, they face a different sort of threat _ losing their roots, language, traditions and culture. ``We're proud of our unique identity,'' said Mana. ``We hope the youngsters born in Thailand can help keep this traditional dance alive and make it flourish in this, our second homeland.''
Dance teacher Mana: ``We must be proud of what belongs to us. We are Tai Yai, wherever we live in the world.''
Mana, 32, has devoted himself to teaching Tai Yai kids how to perfect the king kala dance for the past six years. He learned it from masters in Shan State when he was a child.
The dance has played a vital role in the Tai Yai community for centuries, he said. It is performed on Ok Pansa, the day that marks the end of Buddhist Lent, to welcome Lord Buddha back to Earth after his visit to heaven.
``But nowadays, only a few Thai-born Tai Yai children can perform this dance. Most go for Western-style dancing,'' he said.
Just a decade ago the ram nok king kala was a common sight in the north of Thailand. It was performed in many provinces which have Tai Yai communities, including Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Mae Hong Son. But today Ban San Paa Kor is the only place where one can witness this magnificent dance in its original form.
``We're struggling hard to preserve what belongs to us. How will we know our roots if we let our heritage fall away? What will we tell our children about our proud traditions? I believe that by working together we can restore traditional Tai Yai dance to its former glory,'' said Somsawing Boonalai, 54, a village committee member.
Tai Yai settlements in Thailand can be traced back some 200 years, said Song Na Lampang, 77, adding that her ancestors migrated from Chiang Tung in Burma to Ban San Paa Kor two centuries ago, attracted by the abundant natural resources of Chiang Rai and believing they could earn a living more easily there.
Many others followed. Some moved to Bangkok, others scattered throughout the North. Ban San Paa Kor consists of 80 households and everyone is Tai Yai. ``Our ancestors built Wat Tai Yai or Wat San Paa Kor, the first temple in this province build in a Tai Yai architectural style. It's still in good shape. In early times, boys and girls would be taught to perform the king kala dance there from the age of 10.
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The lion dance requires perfect harmony between the two performers filling the roles of front and rear legs.
``We're so happy that they're rehearsing it again. I really love that dance. It combines grace and joy,'' said Song.
``I feel very relieved that our cultural heritage will be preserved and handed down to future generations. We pin our hopes on our kids. We'll always come to see their shows and encourage them. And we can help teach them to dance more beautifully.''
Mana joined forces with Tai Yai elders to launch the king kala dance conservation scheme back in 1997. Local authorities supported the effort and a fund was set up amounting to some 35,900 baht.
Things didn't go too smoothly at first, though. It was tough to convince some parents who were worried that dance classes might affect their kids' regular schooling.
So Mana visited each house in the village, and eventually parents changed their minds. Then he had to convince the children _ initially only a few were keen. ``I felt discouraged. But I couldn't quit. So I started teaching a handful of kids. Later more students were persuaded to join by their friends,'' he said.
The grounds of Wat Tai Yai serve as an outdoor classroom for greenhorns and experienced pupils alike. Classes are held every Friday and last two hours. Mana is the only teacher for the 10 students.
There are actually two different dances in a king kala performance _ the ram nok (bird dance) and the ram toe (lion dance). The bird dance is performed by a kinaree (mythical creature; half human female, half bird) and a kinarah (its male equivalent). The lion dance requires six people to act the part of three lions. In this section, goat, antelope or deer heads can be substituted for a lion's head. The body of the animal, which is made of thick white hair, always stays the same.
Mana lets students choose whether they want to be birds or lions. Those who want to be birds need to learn 10 basic poses, one of which involves swinging the head back and forth in tandem with rhythmic stamping of the feet; a movement that requires both vigour and grace.
The lion dance requires perfect harmony between the two performers filling the roles of front and rear legs. It's toughest to be the person at the back. This performer has to stoop low all the time, and follow signals from the front person. It requires both strength and grace to perform a move in which the lion rolls on the floor as the bird dancers romp merrily around. A popular part of the proceedings involves the lion approaching the audience for donations _ banknotes which ``he'' then holds in his mouth.
Special care goes into preparing the costumes, based on originals from Shan State. It takes a skilful designer about two weeks to make the lion and bird costumes. The bird's apparel, which comes in red, orange, green and violet, costs about 5,000 baht; the white lion costume comes cheaper _ in the region of 1,000 baht.
Mana tries to ensure that the children's love of the dance will last through their teenage years.
``It saddens me that when kids grow older they sometimes feel embarrassed to perform the dance in public. Boys, especially, say they're too old to be dressing up and performing. I tell them there's nothing to be ashamed of when it comes to tradition and culture. We must be proud of what belongs to us. We are Tai Yai, wherever we live in the world,'' said Mana.
Wat Tai Yai is a beautiful sight during the annual performance of the king kala dance for Ok Pansa. Candles are lit around the temple. A Buddha image is placed in a big tree and then gradually lowered to the stage using a sling; this is meant to represent the Lord Buddha's descent from heaven. Then Lord Buddha is welcomed by the kinaree, kinarah, and lion dancers. The dance lasts between 10 and 30 minutes.
Mana and other Tai Yai people are also reviving interest in their ancestral language. Now senior monks at Wat Tai Yai teach the kids how to speak their native tongue and encourage villagers to wear Tai Yai attire on special occasions.
``"Whether we live in our homeland or our second home, we want to preserve our traditions,'' said Mana. ``These have been a proud part of our lives for a very long time. I intend to teach all the kids born in this community about their roots. I believe that different cultures make the world full of colour and variety