“I’m not sure whether to put you in the male or female role.”
I grew up in the western culture. I played sports alongside the boys in gym class and was encouraged to be assertive and confident. I stand straight and square when speaking to an audience and have a firm handshake that tells you I can take charge. It’s not surprising that my mannerisms are inclined towards the male role in Thai Classical Dance.
Thai Classical Dance dates back more than 500 hundred years when the area of roughly present day Thailand, Cambodia and Laos was ruled by various kingdoms, most notably the Kingdom of Siam. Having little tradition of spoken theatre, dance was and still remains, the main dramatic art form in Thailand. Classical dancers were the prestigious bearers of Thai culture and coveted members of the royal courts. Their performances interpret the stories and religious epics of that era with aesthetic and grace.
Megara, director of the Thai Dance Company in Vancouver, taught me an excerpt from “Mae Bot Yai”, an exercise of the fundamental movements practiced by every Thai classical dancer. The entire 90 minute piece consists of 66 sequences and 3 sets of repeating combinations. The male and female roles share the same movements, but the female is more delicate, with arms held closer to the body and knees closer together. Compare that to the wider stance of the male role, danced by Kady in the green costume; it’s common for dancers to play a role opposite their gender. Megara was driven by the challenge of putting me in the female role, and when verbal corrections failed to feminize my manly gestures, she resorted to adjusting me like a mannequin. Eventually, my body obeyed, though my hands couldn’t achieve the delicate arch from the knuckles that its female dancers are known for. Give it a try, but know that many train this flexibility from childhood by pressing their hands inside bowls.
The attentiveness to costume emphasizes its importance in Thai Classical Dance. Costume marks a dancer’s transition into his or her role, who assumes, with great respect and privilege, those duties once bestowed on their royal court predecessors. This mindset brings about a uniform style and expression amongst dancers in a performance, and also helped preserve consistency of the repertoire over these past centuries. Megara’s serene expression comes from her thoughts of respect for the dance, her elders and her audience.
Getting into costume takes many times longer than the performance itself. For our video, it took over two hours to wrap three of us in luxurious fabrics held by a puzzle of safety pins. That was already a shortcut; done properly, the fabric should have been sewn in place, tailored to the dancer’s body. Megara, buys her costumes from an exclusive retailer in Bangkok, one of few suppliers in this trade. Most pieces are handmade, with beading and designs as intricate as a mosaic. Colours, fabrics, and styling reveal the setting, mood and theme; detailing in the headdress indicates character, whether a king or slave, animal or spirit. However, above all costume traits, Megara is most commonly asked about the long fingernails, caps worn at the ends of female dancers’ fingers that extend about 15 centimeters long. Despite their fascinating appearance, their purpose is mainly aesthetic, to emphasize dancers. graceful hand gestures.
Dance not only explores different ways of movement, but each style opens up new worlds. Thai Classical Dance takes me to the royal courts of ancient kingdoms, where dance was the principal expression of culture, and which embraced a different idea of femininity. When you’re dancing, tell me, where does it take you?
Megara is the Director of the Thai Dance Company of Vancouver. She trained in Thailand and has performed all over the world. She is also trained in Balinese, Polynesian, Flamenco and Bellydance. Check out the website of the Thai Dance Company at www.thaidancecompany.com for gorgeous videos and photos of recent performances.