BURMESE DANCES AND DANCE IN MYANMAR

BURMESE DANCES AND DANCE IN MYANMAR

The earliest physical evidence of dance in Myanmar is excavated artifacts from site of the Pyu city of Srikshetra, founded between the A.D. 5th and 7th centuries and premier Pyu city by the 7th or 8th century. The artifacts include small bronze figures of a flute player, a drummer, a cymbal clapper, a dancer and a fifth figure that looks like a dwarf clown carrying a sack on its back. The heads of the figures are large but the bodies are of fine proportion. They are well dressed and bedecked with ornaments, and their postures are animated indicating they were engaged in performance.

Dance is a prominent and popular form of the performing arts in Myanmar, where dances have traditionally been strict in their adherence form and content. Every one of Myanmar's many festivals features dancing, often in association with music and dramatic performances known as pwe. Historically, all royal functions began and ended up with music and dance. Dances have also been traditionally performed at pagoda festivals, the opening of new capitals, the start of battles, shinbyu (monk novitiation ceremonies) and weddings. Special songs are composed for special occasions and the accompanying dance is, in most cases, improvised.

Myanmar traditional dances are supple, graceful, elaborate, well-refined and floral. Every dance movement resembles an exquisite floral design. A flower is like a dancer. The bloom is the dancer's head. The leaves are the hands and the stem is the body. When the breeze comes, the flower becomes alive and starts to dance to the accompaniment of music, the gentle breeze. Myanmar traditional dances not only exude the unique characteristics of Myanmar culture but also produce innovative traditional works.

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: “Myanmar is an isolated country. As a result of the isolation, some archaic forms of theater have been preserved, free from direct outside influences. Theater and dance did not, however, develop in a vacuum. Early contacts with Indian culture played a major role in the development of the dance, theater, arts, literature, and music of Myanmar, and later, in the late 18th and the early 19th centuries, the contacts with Thailand also influenced the theatrical traditions of Myanmar.” Small reliefs from the Pyu period and the several murals and reliefs from the Pagan period that show dance are characterised by Indian-influenced foot positions, strongly bent bodies, and angular arm positions, all of them features still recognisable in the present-day classical dance technique of Myanmar.[Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki]

Book: International Encyclopedia of Dance , editor Jeane Cohen, six volumes, 3,959 pages, $1,250, Oxford University Press, New York. It took 24 years to prepare.

Early Dance in Myanmar

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: “There is only fragmentary knowledge of the early history of Myanmar classical dance. It seems clear, however, that the present style and technique evolved over some 1,500 years, incorporating elements of the earlier Mon and Puy traditions predating the arrival of the Burmese. As may be expected, Indian influences are clearly present, but it is not exactly known how the Indian influence was received. It is probable that the source in India was the Pala dynasty off Eastern India, which was partly contemporaneous with the classical Pagan period in Myanmar from the 11th to 13th centuries. Pala culture deeply influenced the arts and architecture of Pagan. Thus it is possible that the influence was also felt in the field of in dance. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki |-|]

“The Burmese are believed to have arrived in their present territory in the 9th century AD. The former inhabitants of the country were the Khmer-related Mons, and the Pyus, whose kingdoms flourished in the Irrawaddy River basin from the early centuries A.D. to the 9th century. When one considers how little is known about the early Pyu culture in general, it is exceptional that written evidence about the Pyu dance exists. It is recorded in the Chinese annals. A troupe of Pyu dancers and Mon musicians were sent to the court of Tang China in 801.The chronicles give a full description of the instruments used in the performances as well as of the materials of the costume and ornaments worn by the performers. The dances were performed by groups varying from two to ten dancers, among whom were tattooed men. The performances were received with great appreciation by the Chinese court, and minor titles were bestowed on the group leaders. |-|

“Visual evidence of Pyu dance also exists. Perhaps the best-known Pyu metalwork, now in the collections of the National Museum in Yangon, consists of five separate bronze reliefs, approx. 15 centimeters in height, depicting three dancing musicians and two dancers. They are dated to c. the 6th and 7th centuries. Two of the musicians are clearly depicted with their instruments: a flute and a pot drum. The third musician evidently plays the cymbals. This kind of small standing orchestra playing the above instruments was often shown in Indian dance reliefs from the 7th to the 12th centuries. |-|

“On the left-hand side of the Pyu dancer there is either a child or a dwarf performer who seems to comically comment on the actual dancer. His facial features do not show any child-like qualities and thus the figure could be a dwarfish jester, common in Indian theatrical practices. The principal dancer is in a lively position with an uplifted right foot and a bent body, the left arm bent upward and the hand almost touching his ear. The positions of the legs and feet clearly resemble Indian dance. However, the angular arm movements as well as the bent body bear undeniable similarities to the technique of the present dance tradition of Myanmar. |-|

Dance in the Classical Age of Pagan, 9th to 13th Centuries

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: “Dance images in Pagan’s temples are numerous indeed. They are executed in all the media known in Pagan art, i.e. as stucco reliefs, glazed tiles, wooden reliefs and, above all, as murals. They reveal that the dance tradition of Pagan was related to the traditions of the East Indian and Sri Lankan Buddhist world. The dancing figures can appear as independent motives in the temple murals. They are often also integral elements in the narration of the Buddhist didactic Jataka stories, so they also form a central theme for the later visual and theatrical arts of the whole region. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki |-|]

“A common theme among the dance images is dancing musicians. Sometimes they are shown together with dancers who are taking part in a celebration, such as a religious procession. The male musicians play instruments, such as drums, conch shells and cymbals and they are portrayed in extremely energetic poses in the stretched, wide open-leg position, which enables them to change the weight of their body from side to side. The impression is that of a lively, dynamic dance.|-|

“The dancing musicians belong to the same widespread genre of processional dances which lives to this day, for example, in Manipur, bordering Burma, and in Sri Lanka, with which Pagan had close religious contacts. In Manipur the processions are performed in a Hindu context, whereas in Sri Lanka they belong to the same Theravada Buddhist tradition as in Pagan. The most famous of the many Buddhist processions of Sri Lanka is the annual Kandy Perahera, during which the revered relic, the Buddha’s tooth, is brought out of its temple and carried by an elephant around the city of Kandy. The majestic procession is accompanied by dancers and dancing musicians. The instruments played by the musicians are similar to the ones in the Pagan murals. |-|

“Many of the dancers of the murals, most often females, shown as dancing either together with the musicians or alone or in a group formation, are depicted in the standard position with open-bent legs and one uplifted foot. This position is one of the most widespread features adapted from the Indian tradition to Southeast Asian traditions. Some of the female dancers are shown in more complicated positions, which recall the poses of Indian classical dances, such as the bharatanatyam of Tamil Nadu or the odissi of Orissa, East India. |-|

“One speciality that gives present-day Burmese dance its specific character is the angularity of the arm movements. According to the Pyu dance image discussed above, this quality seems to have been already present in the Pyu period. As in other fields of the arts, the Pyu influence was also felt in music, as is shown by an inscription written to commemorate the building of King Kyanzhitta’s (1084–1113) palace. It informs us that during the celebrations people were “singing Myanma songs, Mon songs and Pyu songs”. Thus it seems most plausible that the Burmese also adopted the Pyu dance tradition during the Pagan period, which thus forms the earliest known layer of the dance tradition of the Myanmar of today.” |-|

Burmese Dance After Pagan

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: “The end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century is generally regarded as the “Age of Triumph” because Burmese political power reached its zenith after the sack of the Thai capital Ayutthaya in 1767. The city was razed, and works of art, artists, musicians and dancers were taken to Burma together with the imprisoned court of Ayutthaya. The following period is regarded as the “Golden Period of Burmese Drama”. The Ramakien, the Thai version of the Indian Ramayana epic, and other drama material were adopted from the Thais. In Burma the Ramayana had previously been known only in the form of Buddhist Jataka stories. Thai artists were greatly valued and Thai dance and theater had a great impact on Burmese theatrical arts. Even today the Thai-influenced dance style is still known as yodayar, which refers to the city of Ayutthaya. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki |-|]

“Burmese dance was “influenced by the classical dance of Thailand or, to be more specific, Thai-Khmer dance; the Thais conquered Angkor in Cambodia in the 15th century and, it is believed, abducted court dancers and other artists. The Thais probably modified the style to their own tastes, and this, in turn, was partly adopted in Burma, when the Burmese imprisoned the Thai court with its dancers after the sack of the Thai capital, Ayutthaya, in 1767.|-|

“Thai theater and dance gave a new impetus to the performing arts of Burma. During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the so-called golden age of Burmese theater, new drama forms evolved, including marionette theater, which had a major effect on the aesthetics and repertoire of the dance in Myanmar. The Thai khon, a form of mask dance-theater enacting the story of the Ramayana, has its equivalent in Burmese dance-theater, and some dances are labelled yodayar, referring to Ayutthaya, the former capital of Thailand. |-|

Recent Developments in Myanmar Dance

In 1877 Burma became a British colony. The British abolished the Burmese monarchy and much of the court art with its splendid traditions of theater and dance disappeared entirely. Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: “Despite the considerable damages of colonial rule to Burmese court traditions, Myanmar is still the home of many unique traditions of music, dance, and theater. Neighbouring India has had a considerable influence on dance and music, although this influence was probably absorbed over many centuries. The Burmese musical tradition, for example, includes archaic instruments of Indian origin that have not been used in India for centuries. Like other indigenous orchestra types in Southeast Asia, the Burmese orchestra (saing) consists mainly of percussion instruments, such as gongs and series of tuned drums.” [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki |-|]

“The present technique and style of dance in Myanmar, as long as the history of the art form may be, is, in fact, a result of the canonising of the Burmese dance technique in the 1950s. The first governmental institutes in control of dance education in Burma were the State Schools of Music in Mandalay and Yangon, founded in 1953. In Burma, where the court tradition had had an abrupt end, it was felt that the classical dance technique should be recreated and standardised for the use of the curriculum of the newly founded State School. This task fell to the renowned performer Oba Thaung, who created the basic movement series, comprising 22 basic movement units (gabyar-lut), still used in dance training in modern Myanmar. |-|

Characteristics of Myanmar Dance

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: “All traditional forms of theater in Myanmar are performed by dancing. The main plot material is based mostly on the Buddhist Jataka stories or the Indian epic Ramayana. Shamanistic ritual performances, consecrated to the spirits (nat), seem to present the oldest strata of indigenous theatrical tradition in present-day Myanmar. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki |-|]

“In the first basic position, the knees are bent into an almost crouching position, and the body is forward with the arms supporting the small of the back. From this “spring-like” tensed position, the dancer rises from time to time, preserving, however, the s-shaped bending of the body. Footwork closely resembles the “flat-foot” steps typical of many Indian dance styles, but in Myanmar the feet only touch the ground lightly, sometimes kicking the long train of the costume backwards. |-|

“The hands repeat gestures of Indian origin, which, unlike the Indian mudras, no longer have any precise symbolic meanings. They are merely “dance gestures” forming an integral element of the dance as a whole. Sharp neck movements accentuate the head movements that follow the rhythm of the music, and the eyes are trained, as in India, to follow the movement. Many dances, or at least parts of them, are performed in a crouching position; sometimes the dancer is nearly lying on the floor. There are similar dances in other parts of Southeast Asia, and they may have been dictated by the requirements of the strict court etiquette where underlings had to kneel before rulers. In fact, many Southeast Asian dances express respect for a ruler, spirits, Hindu deities or the Buddha. |-|

Forms of Myanmar Dance

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: “The most archaic of the dances of Myanmar are probably the dance sequences belonging to nat pwe rituals, already discussed earlier. As was mentioned, they have also been adapted to the more refined, classical repertory. The actual court tradition of Burma was abruptly ended by the Anglo-Burmese wars and the complete destruction of the country’s court culture. However, some of the courtly dance forms spread among the ordinary people when former court artists were forced to find their livelihood outside the restricted circles of the court. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki |-|]

“The actual court dancers were not allowed to perform for outsiders, but they could teach their art to ordinary dancers. Thus the female tradition of court dance spread to the cities of Mandalay and Rangoon at the end of the 19th century. The relatively small court orchestra was expanded, and the performances gained increasingly theatrical features. By the early 20th century the female group dances became very popular and overshadowed many other forms of dance. These kinds of dances are usually performed by large groups of female dancers who execute the dance in unison. They form often part of communal festivities, temple fairs etc. on a grand scale. |-|

Many dance forms have also flourished naturally among ordinary people, both ethnic Burmese and other ethnic groups. Drum dances have had a long history, as is seen in the temple murals of the Pagan period. However, in the 17th century, it is believed, a long-drum dance became increasingly popular. The dancers played long drums while dancing. Later the drums grew in size even more and they were supported by stands. Simultaneously, the dance became more theatrical in character. Their popularity ceased at the beginning of the 20th century when the female group dances became popular. |-|

“There are naturally dozens of different dances in the region of present-day Myanmar. As has already been discussed, the puppet style dances, derived from the repertory and character gallery of the marionette theater, are still very popular. One theme, known in many Southeast Asian cultures, is the dance of the kinnari, a half-bird half-human creature described in Buddhist mythology. It belongs both to the actual Burmese repertory as well as to the Shan tradition of Northeast Myanmar. It is characterised by standard poses indicating flying. The Burmese version is performed in traditional dance costume imitating the court costume of the court of Upper Burma, while in the Shan version the dancer wears a fantastic costume with large, colorful wings supported by bamboo sticks. |-|

Traditional Burmese Dances

The Modern Stick Drum Dance is usually performed at novitiation rites, traditional agricultural festivals, and charitable ceremonies. It is a group dance style with byaw drum music and based on Moe Zar Byaw.

The U Shwe Yoe dances with his comic moustache and comic movements trying to woo the spinster Daw Moe. He dances to the rhythmic sounds of the accompanying dobat or double-faced short drum, cymbals and bamboo clappers. U Shwe Yoe does a good job twirling his umbrella to make his performance more interesting.

The Aphodaw Dance and its musical accompaniment is the purest and oldest form of Myanmar traditional music and dancing. It used to be usually performed by a solo dancer but now it is performed in unison.

Golden Harp Dance: During the reign of ancient kings, the Myanmar harp was the most popular musical instrument performed with cultural dances in the royal chambers. The dance portrays a young and beautiful Royal Princess, descending gracefully from her golden palace in olden times. This beautiful composition shows graceful and lively dance patterns by a group of dancers. At the finale, the harpists show off their virtuosity with the accompaniment of the full orchestra.

Marionette Dance

The Marionette Dance: The puppets, or marionettes, were the main sources of traditional theatrical entertainment during the time of the Myanmar kings, and the yoke-the pew, or marionette theater, was also very popular in the 18th century. Myanmar puppets are distinctive in dress, style and the intricacy involved in manipulating them. The puppets usually have 20 strings but some have as many as 60, giving the puppeteers room to emulate human dance movements in an uncanny manner. Each troupe consists of 28 puppets comprising a cast of animals, kings and queens, courtiers, princes, and clowns. Plots are usually taken from the 550 Jatakas, or from the Ramayana epic. Puppeteers have to be skilled in not only manipulating the puppets, but also in providing the essential accompaniments of songs and narrative.

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: “It is generally believed that the Burmese marionette theater was developed in order to enact the Buddhist Jataka stories with their moral teachings. Live dancer-actors were regarded as too impure to impersonate the principal characters that present the former incarnations of the Buddha. The art of the puppeteers soon achieved virtuoso levels of performance, and during the century-long heyday of this art form the movements of the marionettes came to dictate the technique and aesthetic standards of live dancers. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki |-|]

Puppet-style dances are still popular. Many dance numbers are based on the repertory of the marionette theater, such as the dances of the Magician, the Prince (mintha) and the Princess (minthamee). This partly explains the jerky movements of the dancers, who often perform sitting or crouching on the floor. The marionettes also influenced the way in which the dancers fall down, like a marionette whose strings are cut. The performer, however, always falls to the ground in a very graceful position with legs bent back and arms bent angularly. The facial expression is often a frozen, puppet-like smile, which appears to derive from the marionettes. Over the years, various puppet-style dances evolved, emphasising the precise imitation of the marionettes.

Myanmar Folk Dances

Myanmar folk dances developed together with folk music and songs. So they are inseparably linked with folk music and songs. These three performing arts are complementary and agro-based. As Myanmar is an agricultural country the majority of its people are peasants and their cultural performance 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. The following are some samplings of most pervasive and popular dances. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information ~]

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

The Dou-ba’ dance., another folk dance, is performed with the same band of musicians as in the ou-zi dance. The only difference between ou-zi and dou-ba’ dances is the type of drum played by the dancers. Dou-ba’ is a double face drum slung by means of a strap on the neck of the player. Ou-zi is an elongted one-faced drum with a long body and open-ended tail or leg. It is slung on the shoulder of the player. Than- gja is also chanted in dou-ba’dance. Sometimes than-gja is composed extemporaneously by a witty rhymester of the village. With boisterous percussion music. sonorous songs, agile dance steps and chanting of ‘amusing tha-gja’. the dou-ba’ waing (dou-ba’ party or band) is one of the most hilarious folk dances. It is performed at pagoda festivals and the monk novitiation ceremonies. It is also performed when people gather to give community services or contribute voluntary labour such as digging water wells and tanks, building roads, and repairing public and religious buildings. The dou-ba’ dance can agitate and inspire the public. ~

A bjo (byaw) performance announces the conclusion of a religious deed especially alms-giving, donation, or monk 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. Now-a-days there are professional bjo bands and dances of whom theMoe za bjo band is famous. ~

The 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 in by the cultivators of the land. It is performed at planting and harvesting times. Boun gyi dance is slow as 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. ~

The Naban Zan dance is a favourite of Myanmar rural folks. The name is derived from the hair style fashionable among young-sters in olden days in which tufts of hair are tied on either side of the head to hang over the ears. The dancer is a boy in his early teens with a naban zan hair style, circular paint of thanakha make-up on his cheeks and dressed like a young boy of the old days, 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. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information ~]

U Shway Yoe Comic Folk Dance

Some scholars opine that the U Shway Yoe dance appeared in the early days of British colonial rule. It is a comic dance performed by a male dressed like a typical old Myanmar gentleman with a long neatly trimmed moustache, a scarf around his neck, a spotted turban or headgear, and a square patterned sarong around his waist, In the he dance he makes comic faces and holds a lady’s open parasol in one hand while his other hand is moving with dance gestures. He shakes his moustache and moves his head, eyeballs and eyebrows in tune with the music. Though he is an old gentleman formally dressed, he acts as if he is on the lookout for pretty young girls. His antics raise laughter. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information ~]

It is said that the first actor of U Shway Yoe dance was the famous Myanmar comedian Shway Ta-Lay (U Ba Galay) who played the role of a comedian (old man U Shway Yoe) in a film entitled Taw Myaing Zunka Lwan Aung Hpan (Longing for Wilderness) produced by the New Burma Film Co. In some performances of this type another comic character is introduced in a supporting role. It is a female dancer with the role name of Daw Moe. Daw Moe is supposed to be a middle-aged spinster still hunting for a good husband. She dresses herself up and acts like a young lady and dances flirtingly with U Shway Yoe who does not like spinsters but who always runs after pretty young girls. ~

The U Shway Yoe dance satirizes some Burmese of the old upper class who become social misfits due to their idiosynracies and eccentricities. The dance aptly pokes fun at both the ageing male philanderer and fastidious spinster. It is a favourite dance not only in the countryside but also in towns. The name Shway Yoe caught on in art and commercial circles. Sir George Scott, who served in Myanmar as a high ranking official in the early days of British colonial rule assumed the name Shway Yoe as his penname for his celebrated book “The Burman: His Life and Nations”. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information ~]

In some places little girls perform dances for the trains.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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