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Upholding Thai Culture in Taiwan:The Four Faces Thai Traditional Dancers Group

2020-09-28
Sharleen Su /photo by Jimmy Lin /tr. by Phil Newell
 
The Four Faces Thai Traditional Dancers Group
The Four Faces Thai Traditional Dancers Group
 
Tradition has it that if you make a request of the deity Phra Phrom and your wish is granted, you must come and show your gratitude in whatever way you promised at the time of your request. There are many ways to show gratitude. Those with enough money can make offerings of gold or elephants, while ordinary folks can arrange for a dance of gratitude—it all depends on your budget.
“Phra Phrom likes to see people dance,” explains Ya­tika Vajropala, a dancer from Thailand. In 2009, Vajropala, then working at Radio Taiwan International, got together with her friend Piyarat Khomsomboon, a Thai woman of mixed Taiwanese and Thai heritage, to form the Four Faces Thai Traditional Dancers Group, which is often invited to places all over Taiwan to perform for Phra Phrom. “What makes our dance company special is that all of its members are Thai.” The name of the group comes from a certain motion in traditional Thai dance referring to Phra Phrom, while hand and finger gestures used in the dance of gratitude symbolize bounty and prosperity.
Phra Phrom is the Thai name of Brahma, originally the Hindu god of creation, later also venerated in Buddhism. In recent decades Thai-style worship of Phra Phrom has spread among ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia, Taiwan and China. In Chinese he is known as Si Mian Fo (“the Four-Faced Awakened One”) or Si Mian Shen (“the Four-Faced God”).
 
The costumes worn in Thai classical dance involve many details that have to be just right, so dancers have to put in a lot of effort each time they get dressed.
The costumes worn in Thai classical dance involve many details that have to be just right, so dancers have to put in a lot of effort each time they get dressed.
 
Unchallengeable taboos

“In the Thai dance of gratitude, it is absolutely un­accept­able to dance in a sexy way, and there must be an even number of dancers.” Thai people have a deep faith in Phra Phrom, and once Vajropala starts talking about the dance of gratitude, she has plenty to say: “Prayers to Phra Phrom will surely be answered”; “Prayer will be effective if the person’s heart is sincere”; and “Phra Phrom is a mighty and magnificent god.” In Thailand it is widely believed that Phra Phrom responds quickly to requests. In Taiwan too, Phra Phrom has won the affection of Taiwanese, as can be seen from the increasingly extensive worship of this deity.
For Thai people, the golden Phra Phrom, who stands above other deities, is not a simple god of wealth. He is the creator and master of the world, who dictates wealth, honor, and good fortune on earth. This is why “you can’t wear a bikini or dance sexily in front of Phra Phrom,” Vaj­ropala emphasizes.
 
The clothing worn for traditional Thai dance is dazzling, and the glittering accessories are very eye-catching.
The clothing worn for traditional Thai dance is dazzling, and the glittering accessories are very eye-catching.
 
Phra Phrom calls dancers to Taiwan

The dancers of the Four Faces dance group feel that there is no greater honor than to perform for Phra Phrom in Taiwan. “When I dance before Phra Phrom, I not only sense the aid and protection of the god, I also hope to carry forward the traditional culture of my country,” says dancer Pornwa­lai Thanakitphaisankul.
Piyarat Khomsomboon, one of the group’s founders, was weak and sickly as a child. Whenever she has encountered difficulties in Taiwan she has gone straight to pray to Phra Phrom. Vajropala says that she believed in Phra Phrom when she lived in Thailand, but when she visited the Changchun Phra Phrom temple in Taipei she gained a deeper veneration for this deity. The group members’ faith matured after re­locating to Taiwan, which was something they didn’t expect.
“We feel that everything in life is arranged by Phra Phrom,” says Khomsomboon. The dancers firmly believe that no matter what happens, Phra Phrom can sort things out.
 
Mutita Oibamrung began studying traditional Thai dance at the age of eight and attended the Bunditpatanasilpa Institute, Thailand's top school for traditional dance, music, and arts.
Mutita Oibamrung began studying traditional Thai dance at the age of eight and attended the Bunditpatanasilpa Institute, Thailand's top school for traditional dance, music, and arts.
 
Promoting traditional Thai culture

The movements of the dance of gratitude appear simple, but there is a deeper level of cultural meaning underlying them. The dance of gratitude performed by Vajropala and her “sisters” is considered high-level classical dance in Thailand. Their attire is splendid, with special patterns and sequins embroidered into the brocaded fabric, creating a dazzling effect when they dance.
“Not just anyone can do classical dance.” Even at the height of summer, the dancers must wear elaborate clothing to please the god. Vajropala wears the heavy garments of the nobility with a golden crown on her head, and it takes her 45 minutes just to dress for a performance.
There is a secret hidden in the dancers’ attire. Before performing, the dancers crouch or sit and start sewing with cotton thread. It turns out that there are no buttons on their upper garments, but rather they must sew them closed before each performance, and then unpick the stiches when the show is over. If there are several performances in a day with different themes, they have to go through this process again and again. “Everything we do is based on the traditions of classical dance. We are doing our utmost to preserve traditional Thai culture,” says Vajropala.
The company has designed six different costumes for their dances for Phra Phrom, including traditional Thai dress, garments as worn by the nobility, Hindu attire, and costumes for the kinnari dance. In Buddhist myth­ology, kinnara (male) and kinnari (female) are benevolent creatures with the upper body of a human and the lower body of a bird, that watch over humans in times of danger. The dancers will only wear the kinnari costumes when performing to welcome high-ranking guests and for major holidays, to mark their importance. “We have studied tradi­tional stories, and according to legend the kinnari were born out of the feet of Phra Phrom, so performing the kinnari dance shows even greater respect.” Naturally, this piece is also the most expensive of the group’s repertoire.
 
The members of the Four Faces dance group are all Thai by birth and they all have a firm foundation of dance training. (photo by Jimmy Lin)
The members of the Four Faces dance group are all Thai by birth and they all have a firm foundation of dance training. (photo by Jimmy Lin)
 
The kinnari dance

The kinnari dance is a passage from the Thai classical dance “Khon Lakorn,” describing the joyful play of the deities. In the world of the gods, free from worry, everyone wears a smile, and the kinnari rejoice with them side by side. The entire passage carries the meaning of wishing everyone well with good fortune in all things, so it is a fitting dance to offer to Phra Phrom.
The Kinnari dance expresses the quintessence of Thai culture. Vajropala says: “In times gone by, this dance was only performed at the royal court.” Classical dance in Thailand has a rich cultural history dating back over 300 years. Vajropala’s great-­grandfather and great-­grandmother were members of the royal dance company of King Rama VI (reigned 1910‡1925). Her great-­grandfather was a musician, while her great-­grandmother was a dancer, and the family name Vajropala was bestowed on them by the king himself. The other dancers in the group have also all trained in dance from an early age or studied at professional dance schools, so they have deep roots in classical dance.
 
The Four Faces Thai Traditional Dancers Group took first place in the First New Immigrants Dance Competition, with five of the seven judges awarding them scores of 90 points or above. (courtesy of Four Faces Thai Traditional Dancers Group)
The Four Faces Thai Traditional Dancers Group took first place in the First New Immigrants Dance Competition, with five of the seven judges awarding them scores of 90 points or above. (courtesy of Four Faces Thai Traditional Dancers Group)
 
A hard road to travel

“Unless they genuinely love traditional Thai culture, there are few people around today who want to perform this kind of traditional dance,” says Pornwalai Thanakitphaisankul. Like the Kathakali dance of southern India, classical Thai dance expresses meaning with flowing hand gestures, the expression in the dancer’s eyes, movements of the limbs, and steps; it is a major test of a dancer’s skill.
“Instructors at professional dance schools require students to do just the warm-up moves at least 100 times.” Mutita Oibamrung demonstrates the amazing S-shaped body movement made by Thai dancers with their palms folded backward. Oibamrung began studying dance at eight years old, and it has taken her a great deal of hard work to get as flexible as she is.
Dancers must mentally grasp the rigorous dance movements in order to perform them properly, building on a foundation of arduous training. “Classical dance is high-level dance, and you can’t just change the gestures and movements willy-nilly.” Thanakitphaisankul explains the demanding nature of classical dance: For example, the hands must be raised to the level of the eyebrows, and there are strict rules for just how far apart one’s legs should be when crouching down to form a square arch shape.
Besides finding time to practice dance, the four “sisters” in the group also look after each other in daily life. One of their little joys in life in Taiwan is to go out for an authentic Thai meal after practice.
As performers of the dance of gratitude, the group members are very clear about how often clients thank the deity for prayers granted. “Sometimes a client will come back after a week and ask us to perform.” This means that the person’s wish came true after one week. There are also clients, pious believers in Phra Phrom, who regularly express gratitude each month. Because Phra Phrom has wide-­ranging powers, the company is being hired to perform more and more frequently, and their schedule is usually full.
Since founding their company in Taiwan 11 years ago, the Four Faces dance group has regularly donated a portion of their performance income to dis­advant­aged groups and charitable organizations. So far they have donated NT$213,050, testifying to their love for Taiwan and for Thailand.
“I probably won’t leave Taiwan, because now it’s my home!” Piyarat Khomsomboon has lived in Taiwan for 13 years now, and is well integrated into life here. ­Yatika Vajropala, who has worked in Taiwan for 11 years, also plans to stay permanently. She is very open about expres­sing her fondness for the island: “I love Taiwan!”
These women were nurtured in the fertile artistic soil of Thailand and have flowered here in Taiwan. For the performers of the Four Faces Thai Traditional Dancers Group, this is the best way that Phra Phrom could have arranged things.
 
Retrieve from Taiwan Panorama
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