Two of my worlds collide in Bangkok, saved by Thai dancers, unexpected grace, and continuing a centuries-old tradition of royal Thai dance.
First, I love dance. Any dance. I’m a little too creaky to get down on the floor, but those hip hop moves amaze me. I even watch “Singing in the Rain” over and over. Sometimes I combine my love of dance and my romance with travel.
The greatest two minutes of dance I ever saw was an assassination scene danced by the Cuban National Ballet in the Teatro Massimo of Palermo, Sicily (talk about location!) when a cluster of dancers, menacing and slow, slid towards the victim like so many small particles of silvery mercury fusing into a weighty, unstoppable thing.
I’m looking forward to my return to Oaxaca, Mexico for the Guelaguetza, one of the last, great traditional indigenous dances in the Americas. Of course, there’s the fabulous Ballet Folklorico in Mexico City. I’ve seen the Nutcracker in Boston, San Francisco and Las Vegas and loved it over and over. And any time you have a chance to see the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater—go! I walked past the Santiago, Chile ballet theater just as they burst outside for an impromptu dance in the hot Chilean sun. I’ve jumped with the Maasai in Kenya, watched the dances in Zululand, and polkaed all night at a small German farm town’s Oktoberfest.
Which brings me to the second of my worlds in collision. I’m a solo, unstructured, traveler. I prefer to travel independently, striking out on my own with only a sketchy plan or taking a trip with my wife or, in her absence, with one of my great travel buddies intent on new adventures, not a firm itinerary. I’ve stayed away from packaged tours as I like moving at my own speed, not rushing to keep up with the group. To me, many tours can have a prepackaged vibe to them, everything too planned, too sanitized, too slick. Yet, sometimes I see a travel tour deal that’s too big a bargain to pass up.
That’s how I ended up on a bus in Bangkok, headed to a “dinner theater.” The combination of the words “bus” plus “dinner theater” is ordinarily enough to send shudders through me. As I feared, we pulled into a parking lot crammed with tour buses. Dread deepened as we entered a semi-open-air new development which stacked tee shirt shops, souvenir shops, and overpriced bars on top of each other. The place was very clean. The wonderful, dirty, old Chao Phraya River was out there somewhere, but it took some wandering to find it. At the appointed hour, we all showed up for our dinner and theater which was to be a dance review.
The dinner was ok (it’s hard to find bad Thai food), but it was the dancing which attracted Thai families crowding in at every available seat. With little introduction, a series of dancers entered, danced, and quickly exited followed by another group. The music was recorded. But the dance itself, with the expressive hand movements, the ornate and stylized costumes, and the traditional presentation was a delight to watch.
I’m not an expert on any form of dance, but I know this stylized form of Thai dance originated in the Thai Royal Court and is still subsidized by the present King. The elaborate costumes are traditional and largely unaltered from the original designs. You can pick out the similarities in ancient wall murals, old illustrations, and antique cast bronze figures. The dances act out stories or parables and, at times, masks are worn to represent spirits or angels. It’s dance and history as one.
The hand gestures are key to the dance. You don’t have to be an expert to appreciate the fluid grace as the dancers move their fingers back, away from their palms as their arms sway like tall grass in a gentle breeze. A fingernail dance and its variations add to the expressive hand gestures. In this version dancers wear very long fingernail extensions, sometimes topped off with miniature pompoms.
I had been ready for a dreary tourist production, but these Thai dancers, unexpected grace, harmony with each other and their long tradition, continued a centuries-old art form once restricted to the royal palace and now enjoyed by local Thais and a few busloads of foreign tourists.
Text and Photos © Gray On The Road and © Gary Gray