Dance in Thailand (Thai: นาฏศิลป์, pronounced [nâat.dtà.sǐn] or Thai: นาฏกรรม, pronounced [nâat.dtà.kam]) is the main dramatic art form in Thailand. Thai dance can be divided into two major categories, high art (classical dance) and low art (folk dance).
The Thai terms for dance, รำ 'ram', and ระบำ 'rabam' derive from the Old Khmer words រាំ 'raṃ' and របាំ 'rapaṃ', respectively. There is an extended influence of ancient Khmer forms on Thai Classical dance and performance. This is due to the multitude of Khmer words relating to dance, music and performance, along with the similarities found between the gestures of Thai dancers’ depictions in ancient Khmer sculpture and bas reliefs.
According to Surapone Virulrak, Thai performance art took shape during the Ayutthaya period. At this time, Chak nak Dukdamban, a "ceremony depicting the churning of the ocean to create the immortal spirit", was performed on special occasions. This ceremony drew from the Indian epic of the Mahābhārata. Virulrak states, "These performing arts were gradually developed into Khon (masked play), lakhon nok (public dance drama) and lakhon nai (court dance drama) during the Late Ayutthaya Period (1456-1767)", adding, "this period also enjoyed various imported performing arts from neighbouring countries." According to Paul Cravath, this ceremony was also depicted in bas-reliefs at Angkor Wat and could have been the forefather of Khon.
Aside from folk and regional dances (such as southern Thailand's Indian-influenced Manora dance), the two major forms of Thai classical dance drama are Khon and lakhon nai. In the beginning, both were exclusively court entertainments and it was not until much later that a popular style of dance theatre, likay, evolved as a diversion for the common folk who had no access to royal performances.
The first detailed European record of Khon and other Thai classical dances was made during the Ayutthaya Kingdom. The tradition and styles employed are almost identical to the Thai traditions we still see today. Historical evidence establishes that the Thai art of stage plays was already perfected by the 17th-century. Louis XIV, the Sun King of France, had a formal diplomatic relation with Ayutthaya's King Narai. In 1687, France sent the diplomat Simon de la Loubère to record all that he saw in the Siamese Kingdom and its traditions. In his famous account Du Royaume de Siam, La Loubère carefully observed the classic 17th-century theatre of Siam, including an epic battle scene from a Khon performance, and recorded what he saw in great detail:: 49
The Siamese have three sorts of Stage Plays: That which they call Cone [Khon] is a figure dance, to the sound of the violin and some other instruments. The dancers are masked and armed and represent rather combat than a dance. And though everyone runs into high motions, and extravagant postures, they cease not continually to intermix some word. Most of their masks are hideous and represent either monstrous Beasts or kinds of Devils. The Show which they call Lacone is a poem intermix with Epic and Dramatic, which lasts three days, from eight in the morning till seven at night. They are histories in verse, serious, and sung by several actors always present, and which do only sing reciprocally.... The Rabam is a double dance of men and women, which is not martial, but gallant ... they can perform it without much tyring themselves, because their way of dancing is a simple march round, very slow, and without any high motion; but with a great many slow contortions of the body and arms.
Of the attires of Siamese Khon dancers, La Loubère recorded that: "[T]hose that dance in Rabam, and Cone, have gilded high and pointed. It was introduced by Persian Lombok hat in King Naraya reign. but which hang down at the sides below their ears, which are adorned with counterfeit stones, and with two pendants of gilded wood.": 49
La Loubère also observed the existence of muay Thai and muay Lao, noting that they looked similar (i.e., using both fists and elbows to fight), but the hand-wrapping techniques were different.: 49
The accomplishment and influence of Thai art and culture, developed during the Ayutthaya Period, on neighboring countries was evident in the observation of Captain James Low a British scholar of Southeast Asia, during the early Rattanakosin Era:
"The Siamese have attained to a considerable degree of perfection in dramatic exhibitions — and are in this respect envied by their neighbours the Burmans, Laos, and Cambojans who all employ Siamese actors when they can be got."
Lakhon features a wider range of stories than Khon, including folk tales and Jataka stories. Dancers are usually female who play both male and female roles and perform as a group rather than representing individual characters. Lakhon draws inspiration primarily from the Ramakien (Thai adaptation of Hindu epic Ramayana). Percussion instruments and piphat, a type of woodwind, accompany the dance. Thai literature and drama draw great inspiration from Indian arts and legends.
Main article: Khon
Khon is the most stylized form of Thai dance. It is performed by troupes of non-speaking dancers, the story being told by a chorus at the side of the stage. Choreography follows traditional models rather than attempting to innovate. Most Khon performances feature episodes from the Ramakien. Costumes are dictated by tradition, with angels, both good and bad, wearing colored masks.
Fon (Thai: ฟ้อน; RTGS: fon) is a form of folk dance accompanied by the folk music of the region. The first fon originated in the northern region of Thailand. It was designed and taught by Chao Dararasami of Chiang Mai. Since then, a variety of fon came into practice, featuring the music and style of each province, such as the fon lep (Thai: ฟ้อนเล็บ; RTGS: fon lep) fingernail dance from Chiang Mai and the fon ngiew from Chiang Rai, which was influenced by Burmese music and costume.
Fon is divided into three types:
Thai classical arts exercised a strong influence on neighboring countries, especially Burma and Cambodia. The two golden periods of Burmese literature were the direct consequences of the Thai literary influence. The first transmission happened during the two-decade period (1564–83), in which the Toungoo Dynasty briefly managed to subject Siam as its vassal state. This conquest incorporated many Thai elements into Burmese literature. the most evident ones were the yadu or yatu (ရာတု), an emotional and philosophic verse and the yagan (ရာကန်) genre. The next transmission of Thai literary influence to Burma happened in the aftermath of the fall of Ayutthaya Kingdom in 1767. After the second conquest of Ayutthaya (Thailand), many Siamese royal dancers and poets were brought back to the court of Konbaung. Ramakien, the Thai version of Ramayana (ရာမယန), was introduced and was adapted in Burmese where it is now called Yama Zatdaw. Burmese literature during this period was therefore modelled after the Ramayana, and dramatic plays were patronised by the Burmese court.
Cambodia had fallen into the control of Siamese hegemony around the reign of King Naresuan. But it was during the Thonburi Kingdom that the high cultures of the Rattanakosin Kingdom were systematically transmitted to the Cambodian court, which absorbed them voraciously. As Fédéric Maurel, a French historian notes:
From the close of the eighteenth century and through the nineteenth century, a number of Khmer pages, classical women dancers, and musicians studied with Thai Ajarn (masters or teachers) in Cambodia. The presence of these Thai elite in Cambodia contributed to the development of strong Thai cultural influence among the Khmer upper classes. Moreover, some members of the Khmer royal family went to the Thai court and developed close relations with well-educated Thai nobility, as well as several court poets. Such cultural links were so powerful that, in some fields, one might use the term Siamization in referring to the processes of cultural absorption at the Khmer court at that time.
It was during this period of Siamization that Thai literary influence had a wholesale impact on the Khmer literature. The Nirat or Siamese tradition of parting poetry was emulated by Khmer poets, and many Thai stories, such as Ka Kee, were translated from the Siamese source into the Khmer language. One study on comparative literature found that Cambodia's current version of Ramayana (Reamker) was translated directly from the Thai source, almost stanza by stanza. The Cambodian royal court used to stage Thai lakhon dramas in the Thai language during King Narodom's reign.
Folk dance forms include dance theater forms like likay, numerous regional dances (ram), the ritual dance ram muay, and homage to the teacher, wai khru. Both ram muay and wai khru take place before all traditional muay Thai matches. The wai is also an annual ceremony performed by Thai classical dance groups to honor their artistic ancestors.