Rhythms of the Kingdom: Exploring Thailand’s Dance Heritage

Teerin Julsawad

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Thai dance is a striking expression of the nation’s soul, threading together history, mythology, and emotion into captivating performances. The Khon and Nora dances, recognized by UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, highlight the international acclaim of Thailand’s performing arts. Yet, these celebrated examples barely scratch the surface. Thailand boasts a vast array of over 80 dance styles, each with its own story.

Wiphitsilpa” — crafted by the Bunditpatanasilp Institute of Fine Arts and the Thailand Foundation — opens a window into the diverse world of Thai performing arts. As we explore several signature dances from each of Thailand’s regions, this guide reveals the depth and breadth of the nation’s storytelling prowess through its most expressive art form. From the grace of traditional movements to the spirit of regional interpretations, this exploration is an invitation to experience the soul of Thailand, one dance at a time.

Rhythms of the Kingdom: Exploring Thailand’s Dance Heritage

1. The four basic genres of Thai dance
2. Regional styles of Thai performing arts
3. From spectatorship to participation
4. A call to dance

The four basic genres of Thai dance

Understanding the terminology is key to appreciating the nuances of this rich tradition. Here, we break down the four main genres of Thai dance, each with its own distinct flavor and historical significance.

Source: Bunditpatanasilp Institute of Fine Arts

1. Ram highlights the dancer’s skill through Ram Diew (Solo Ram) and Ram Khoo (Duet Ram) performances. Celebrated for its aesthetic beauty, Ram requires a high degree of skill, showcasing the performer’s ability to convey emotions and stories with precision and grace.

2. Rabam, unlike Ram, involves three or more performers. It includes Rabam Mat-tra-than (Standard Rabam), following traditional choreography, and Rabam Bet-ta-led (Miscellaneous Rabam), which embraces a variety of themes from local folklore to animal mimicry.

3. Lakhon brings stories to life, combining dance and acting to depict epic tales and folklore. This genre is categorized into Lakhon Ram (Dance Drama), where the narrative unfolds through dance; Lakhon Rong (Singing Lakhon), which uses musical dialogues; and Lakhon Phud (Speaking Lakhon), focusing on spoken dialogues and realistic body language.

4. Khon, celebrated for integrating various art disciplines, from dance to costume craftsmanship, dramatizes the Ramakien, Thailand’s adaptation of the Ramayana. Its categorization into Khon Klang Plaeng (Outdoor Khon), Khon Nang Rao (Seated Khon), Khon Rong Nai (Inner Stage Khon), Khon Na Jor (On-Screen Khon), and Khon Chak (Multi-Scene Khon) highlights the genre’s complexity and the elaborate expression through masked performance.

Together, these genres form the cornerstone of Thai performing arts, each contributing to the narrative and aesthetic diversity that defines Thai dance.

Regional styles of Thai performing arts

Thailand’s cultural vibrancy is magnified through its folk performing arts, where each of the four main regions — North, South, Northeast (Isan), and Central Thailand — brings its own distinct flavor to the dance floor. They are a kind of entertainment, but also serve as the heartbeat of regional identity, traditions, and community values. Every dance style, shaped by its region’s unique environment, beliefs, and lifestyle, blends various artistic disciplines. This fusion not only highlights local literature and music but also turns dance into a vibrant archive, preserving and celebrating Thailand’s diverse cultural heritage.

Northern Thai dance: A symphony of serenity and strength

Northern Thailand, with its tranquil mountains and gentle communities, offers dances, referred to as Fon, that reflect this landscape’s calm and the people’s kind demeanor. Yet, it’s not all slow motion; there’s an undercurrent of vitality and strength in performances like the Klong Sa-bat Chai (Victory Drum Dance), showcasing the region’s dynamic spirit.

Klong Sa-bat Chai (The Victory Drum)

Klong Sa-bat Chai (The Victory Drum)
Source: Bunditpatanasilp Institute of Fine Arts

Rooted in the Northern Thai folk tradition of the Lan Na kingdom, a historic region known for its rich cultural heritage and distinct identity, the Klong Sa-bat Chai dance is a powerful narrative of perseverance, initially performed to motivate warriors with its rhythmic beats. Transitioning from the battlefield to ceremonial spaces, it now symbolizes peace and prosperity. The lead dancer, before the Victory Drum, executes martial arts-inspired strikes, a display demanding both finesse and vigor, celebrating the Lan Na people’s enduring spirit. This performance is a blend of tradition and agility, underscored by the sounds of the Salor and Sueng, instruments that add layers of emotional depth to the dance. It’s a testament to Northern Thailand’s cultural resilience, marrying historical significance with a communal sense of joy and unity.

Southern Thai dance: A vivacious mosaic

Nestled between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, Southern Thailand is a region of colorful cultures and spirited traditions, reflected in its performing arts. The dances here are a lively representation of the South’s dynamic way of life, characterized by fast-paced movements and vigorous musical accompaniment. These performances not only entertain but also echo the daily lives and occupations of local communities, from the rhythms of the sea to the toils of mining.

The diversity of Southern Thai dances is influenced by the region’s geographical split: the Upper South, with its Buddhist roots, showcases dances accompanied by traditional instruments like the Pi, Klong, and Mong. Meanwhile, the Lower South, historically a bustling trade hub, has seen a longstanding integration of Western instruments alongside local ones due to its significant Malay-Muslim community and its interactions with Western traders. This melding has created a distinctive musical fusion that aligns with maritime Southeast Asian traditions, enriching the region’s performing arts with a unique sound palette.

Nora dance drama

Nora dance drama
Source: Bunditpatanasilp Institute of Fine Arts

Among the rich array of Southern Thai performances, Nora stands out as a profound expression of regional identity and artistic excellence. This comprehensive art form, recognized by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, encapsulates dance, acting, singing, and poetry, rooted in centuries of tradition. Inspired by the mythical Kinnari — ethereal beings that are half-bird, half-human — Nora performances are a mesmerizing blend of mythology and craftsmanship. Nora’s significance extends beyond entertainment; it is a spiritual and ritualistic practice that honors the legacy of past masters. The dance’s intricate choreography and the elaborate costumes reflect the depth of Southern Thailand’s cultural heritage, making Nora a true celebration of life, tradition, and the enduring spirit of the South.

Northeastern Thai dance: The energizing pulse of Isan

Northeastern Thailand, or Isan, is a region rich in history and cultural diversity, characterized by its lively and friendly people. The folk dances of Isan are a reflection of this, brimming with energy and accompanied by lively music. The music that propels these dances forward comes from traditional instruments like the Khaen, Phin, Wote, Pong Lang, Ching, Chap, and Krap, each adding its unique sound to the region’s performing arts.

Dance in Isan, referred to as Soeng and Fon, encompasses both solo and group performances. The region itself is divided into the Upper Northeast, with cultural links to its neighboring Laos along the Mekong River, and the Lower Northeast, where a significant ethnic Khmer population resides, along with other groups like the Kuy and Yer peoples. This geographical and cultural divide enriches the dance traditions of Isan, blending a variety of influences into a unique expression.

Soeng Kratip Khao (Sticky Rice Basket Dance)

Soeng Kratip Khao (Sticky Rice Basket Dance)
Source: Bunditpatanasilp Institute of Fine Arts

Soeng Kratip Khao graces holiday celebrations in Northeastern Thailand. The term “Kratip” denotes a basket traditionally used to carry cooked glutinous rice, symbolizing the dance’s portrayal of young women bringing meals to their loved ones laboring outdoors. This performance beautifully captures the elegance and vitality of the dancers’ movements, alternating between the serene and the swift. It’s a dance that paints a vivid narrative of care, community, and the everyday grace of rural life. Soeng Kratip Khao showcases the exquisite harmony of movement and tradition in a dance that mirrors the rhythms of agrarian devotion and familial bonds.

Central Thai dance: The rhythmic heart of the plains

Central Thailand, with its fertile lands crisscrossed by rivers and dotted with rice fields, stands as the country’s agricultural heartland. This region, hosting both the current and ancient capitals, is steeped in history and tradition, with its performing arts reflecting the agrarian lifestyle of its people. After long days of work, dance and music emerge as vital expressions of relaxation and joy, with Central Thai dances characterized by their energy and charm. These performances often explore themes of courtship and communal celebration, accompanied by the resonant sounds of traditional instruments like the Klong, Thone, Ching, Chap, Krap, and Mong.

Ram Thoet Thoeng (Long Drum Dance)

Ram Thoet Thoeng (Long Drum Dance)
Source: Bunditpatanasilp Institute of Fine Arts

Among the lively dances of Central Thailand, the Ram Thoet Thoeng, or Long Drum Dance, captures the essence of festive gatherings. Known also as Ram Klong Yao, this dance centers around the traditional Thai long drum, Klong Yao, symbolizing joy and unity. Male and female dancers engage in a playful exchange, with the drum’s rhythmic beats guiding their movements. This dance is a celebration of life, a reflection of the community’s heart and soul, and a display of Central Thailand’s identity.

From spectatorship to participation

As we journey through the rhythmic heart of Thailand, from the spirited performances of the North, South, Northeast, and Central regions, the allure of Thai dance transcends the boundaries of just observation. For those inspired to dive deeper, the world of Thai performing arts is accessible not only through the eyes of a spectator but also through the immersive experience of participation.

Watching Thai dance performances

Rabam Chut Thai Phraratchaniyom
Source: Bunditpatanasilp Institute of Fine Arts

Across Thailand, opportunities to witness these captivating dances abound, from cultural festivals and temple fairs to dedicated performances in Bangkok’s illustrious theaters and cultural centers. The annual Loy Krathong Festival, celebrated nationwide, showcases a variety of traditional dances, offering a spectacular entry point for those eager to see the diversity of Thai dance up close. Additionally, the Thailand Cultural Centre in Bangkok frequently hosts performances of both classical and contemporary Thai dances, providing a window into the country’s rich performing arts heritage.

Learning Thai dance

For enthusiasts moved to not just watch but embody the grace and complexity of Thai dance, several schools across Thailand offer classes ranging from beginner to advanced levels. The Thailand Foundation provides online resources on Thai dance, while Bunditpatanasilp Institute of Fine Arts gives dance workshops for any who are interested in Thai performing arts. These classes offer a unique chance to understand the cultural nuances and physical discipline required in Thai dance, bridging the gap between appreciation and practice.

Moreover, in cities around the world, Thai cultural associations and communities abroad often hold dance workshops, making the beauty of Thai dance accessible beyond its borders. These classes serve as bridges, connecting participants to Thailand’s artistic traditions and fostering a global community of Thai dance practitioners.

A call to dance

“The human body is a vessel through which culture is created and passed on. Dance, as a direct expression of the body, is a raw and powerful way to reveal the story of who we are.”

Tayud Mongkolrat, Editor-in-Chief, Thailand Foundation
Krung Thep
Source: Bunditpatanasilp Institute of Fine Arts

“Wiphitsilpa” invites readers on a visual and informative journey through the art of Thai dance. For those curious to explore beyond the dances highlighted here, the book offers a detailed look at over 80 styles of Thai dance performances.

But beyond the pages, the true essence of Thai dances unfolds through live experiences and personal engagement. Embrace the rhythm, immerse in the movements, and join the continuum of Thai dance tradition. Let the diverse and vibrant spectrum of Thai performing arts draw you into its world — whether by witnessing a performance or participating in one, you’re connecting with the very heartbeat of Thailand.

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Teerin Julsawad

An NYU and Columbia alum, Teerin spent a vibrant decade immersed in NYC life, with a stint at The New Yorker for good measure. Now he stirs his creative pot in Bangkok, mixing journalism, design, and digital marketing into an enticing concoction, always keen on forging meaningful connections through his craft.

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