Dancing is a way of life for the Burmese people. It is their expression of happiness, tragedy and celebration. Some of the dances are also distinct declarations of praise and worship of the powerful spirits or ‘nats’.
The Burmese dances are closely related to the country’s folk music and customs. The movements, although slightly reflective that of the neighbouring country, Thailand it is distinctive and unique on its own. Burmese dances are more fast-paced and lively. The angular and snappy twists of the body focus more on the dramatic pose rather than fluidity of movement.
The Burmese dance roots go back to the Halin, Mon and Pyu cultures of the lower Irrawady provinces. It can be traced back to at least two hundred years before the Christian era. The movements are influenced by India as well as the Khmer. The clashes of these countries would have resulted to adopting some its traditional practices including dances.
It is exciting to observe that most of the routines would depict the spiritual aspects especially warnings on the consequences of misdeeds such as immorality. The dancers are well trained and disciplined as difficult movements that are almost acrobatic in nature are part of the choreography. Burmese dances are modest in nature. The male and female dancers would barely touch each other. The female dancers would often wear coat long-sleeved top, long longyi’s with wide-tied waist. Its counterpart would be attired as princes in silk longyi’s, jacket and a white scarf. Other characters in the dance would be the nats or spirit gods, soldiers and the shaman or locally called a zawgyi.
Burma’s most popular time-honoured dance is the Yama Zatdaw. It tells about an epic tale on the exploits of Rama. It is a sombre narrative heavily swayed by human struggles and the effects of war. There is also the Bilu dance characterized by ogre-like faces and animation. According to a popular myth, a plague of ogres terrorized Burma and its people in 2000 BC. One of the more famous monsters in this dance story is Dasagiri, who is also present in the Yama Zatdaw. The dance movements are exceptional with its Bilu characters trying to lure unsuspecting women thereby projecting fierceness and gracefulness at the same time.
U Min Gyaw is another folklore that was immortalized through dance. This is a story about a Burmese horseman who has attained influence and power but has thrown all these away by becoming an alcoholic, gambler and womanizer. The story would further unravel with U Min Gyaw murdering his two brothers. The nats would then play tricks on U Min Gyaw causing him to suffer. The dancer’s body movements would mimic his state of drunkenness.
One traditional dance that is very challenging to perform is the Oil Lamp dance. The performer’s hands or palms would be upturned all throughout the dance as if holding an oil lamp all the while projecting different body expressions with diverse movements of the hands and the feet. The traditional dancers would claim that learning this dance is an ordeal.