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Dance Is Life

Dance transcends race, religion, culture and creed. More than just physical movements set to music, dance fuses action, space, time and energy into a beautiful expression of emotions and feelings, cultures and traditions. Here are some of the most elegant, enduring and inspiring dances from around the world.

Words: Efi Hafizah Hamzah

Image: Tourism Malaysia

Ngajat – Sarawak, East Malaysia & Borneo

This indigenous dance dates as far back as the 16th century, and is practised by the Iban tribe in Sarawak. Although its true origins are unclear, it is believed to have been performed by warriors upon their return from battle. Now, ngajat is performed during the harvest festival of Gawai, and in welcoming guests to longhouses. The dance is choreographed with graceful sways and turns to the rhythmic music made by ethnic instruments like the enkeromong, bendai, canang and dumbak or ketebong. Though graceful and languorous, the dance is also a powerful expression of nobility and bravery.

GETTING THERE AirAsia flies to various cities in Sarawak, East Malaysia, from various destinations. Go to www.airasia.com for details.

Image: Corbis

Donghuang – China

Ancient Buddhist drawings in grottoes found between the 4thand 14th centuries in the city of Dunhuang, Gansu province, inspired the Dunhuang dance. This city was often frequented by traders and monks, and hence the Dunhuang dance was influenced by both Indian and Middle Eastern cultures. While Oriental in overall performance, the Dunhuang tend to employ swaying hip movements that are characteristic of Middle Eastern cultures while the hand gestures mimic Indian dance forms. This dance is famous for its depiction of poses based on the frescoes found in the caves, and the thousand-hand Boddhisattva dance is a contemporary offshoot from the original Dunhuang dance.

GETTING THERE AirAsia flies to various cities in China from various destinations. Go to www.airasia.com for details.

Image: Getty Images

Bharatanatyam – India

Originally performed by devadasis (maidens who dedicate their lives to serving as dancers and musicians in temples), this Indian classical dance has evolved into a highly complex mainstream dance form and is often described as the most exacting of dances from India due to the precision required and angular movements. Bharatanatyam was traditionally reserved for elaborate temple and court rituals in Tamil Nadu, India. However, its elementary forms and movements underwent reconstructions through four dance gurus: Chinnayya, Ponnayya, Vadivelu and Sivanandam in the early 19th century. What we see today is a composition of these developments. The dance itself can be a dedication to the gods, a tale or, pure dance that simply celebrates movement and music, further accentuated by the lilting sounds of the salangai (brass bell anklets) in rhythmic precision.

GETTING THERE AirAsia flies to Chennai and Trichy in Tamil Nadu from various destinations. Go to www.airasia.com for details.

Image: Corbis

Mugo – Korea

Korea is well-known for its drum dance – mugo; mu means ‘dance’, and go means ‘drum’. It is a highly respected dance that combines drumming strength with martial arts techniques. The more popular ones include the samgomu (three-drum dance) performed by a women displaying dynamic drumming and dancing; gyeongju (from the province it originated), which was originally a court dance with more refined movements performed by highly trained female dancers; and the pungmul (folk dance) performed by a cast of hundreds at times that combines drumming, dancing and singing. Pungmul is also used as an expressive art form in political protests.

GETTING THERE AirAsia X flies daily to Seoul, South Korea, from Kuala Lumpur. Go to www.airasia.com for details.

Image: Tourism Malaysia

Asyik – Peninsular Malaysia

Asyik is a royal court dance from the state of Kelantan in the northeastern part of Peninsula Malaysia (known as Patani in the 15th century). Historically, as stated in Hikayat Patani in 1644, the king, Raja Kuning kept 12 palace dancers called asyik. It is said that the king was broken hearted at the loss of his pet bird that escaped its cage. He then asked that the palace dancers create a dance to mimic the delicate movements of the birds in remembrance of his beloved pet bird. The gentle sways and elegant poses in the dance are surpassed only by the fact that almost all aspects of the dance have remained intact since its inception some 400 years ago.

GETTING THERE AirAsia flies to Kota Bahru, Kelantan, and other Malaysian cities from various destinations. Go to www.airasia.com for details.

Image: Corbis

Flamenco – Spain

The origins of flamenco are deeply rooted in the gypsy community of Spain, often called the ‘Fathers of Flamenco’. To be precise, this intense dance originates from southern Spain, heavily influenced by the Andalusians. Flamenco is delivered in perfection when all three of its elements come to life – cante (the song), guitarra (the guitar-playing), and baile (the dance). Over the years, the flamenco in Spain evolved through interpretations by diverse cultures and civilisations that settled in the country. The seven centuries of Muslim occupation in Spain certainly didn’t pass without leaving traces of Moorish influence on the dance. The true beauty of flamenco is its permutation of fluidity within staccato and firm movements, one that depicts strength, courage and bravado.

Image: Inmagine

Barongan – Indonesia

The barongan is a mythological dance drama that began in Blora, Central Java, but continues to thrive especially in Bali as a popular art form. Barongan or barong means ‘the mane of a lion’ and is generally performed as a dance drama that depicts the battle between barong (the lion) and Rangda (the demon queen), portraying the struggle between dharma (virtue) and adharma (evil). According to history, the dance was created by village headman, Ki Ageng Ketut Suryongalam, as a political statement in the 470s during the rule of Majapahit. In most stage performances, the barong appears like a large, gangly lion, and subdues Rangda but never quite slays it. This unique characteristic of the lion is said to reflect the ever benign and forgiving nature of God. Nonetheless, the performance is a full display of power, majesty and the ultimate triumph of good over evil.

GETTING THERE AirAsia flies to Bali and various cities in Indonesia. Go to www.airasia.com for details.

Image: Getty Images

Apsara – Cambodia

Apsara is a Khmer classical dance that portrays the union of a celestial dancer, Mera, with a wise man, Kambu. It is a love story told through dance. As with many classical dances today, newer interpretations began in the mid 20th century, following the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime, which had literally wiped out all forms of classical dances in Cambodia. Traditional dance gurus studied the figurines carved on the walls of Angkor Wat and other monuments and eventually created the apsara dance that can be witnessed today. The apsara (celestial nymph) is the basis for the graceful dance that relies on very fine hand gestures to convey subtle motions and feelings, making it an amazingly technical yet refined dance.

GETTING THERE AirAsia flies to Siem Reap and Phnom Penh in Cambodia from various destinations. Go to www.airasia.com for details.

Image: Adam Lee

Mua Roi Nuoc – Vietnam

While this is not quite a dance per se, mua roi nuoc or Vietnamese water puppetry is an age-old art that is closely tied to the rural culture of rice farmers in the Red River delta. The puppets are made of wood and decorated in bright colours with moveable heads and arms. They are mounted on a base rudder that acts as a fulcrum for the strings to control the upper body. Each puppet can be as tall as 18 to 36 inches and weighs anywhere between 10 to 14 kilogrammes. These puppets portray humans, animals and inanimate objects in the performances that depict the life and times of rural folk. Originally performed in ponds and paddy fields, now a shallow pond serves as its stage. Audience will be totally gobsmacked as to how the puppets perform with seemingly no help from any human or mechanical aid!

GETTING THERE AirAsia flies to Ho Chi Minh City, Da Nang and Hanoi from various destinations. Go to www.airasia.com for details.

Image: Corbis

Khon – Thailand

The khon dance-drama is essentially a stage performance that uses acting, dancing, martial arts and chorus-singing in the telling of much beloved epics in Thailand. With roots as a form of entertainment for royalty, the khon is similar to normal acting or lakhon but is distinguished by the elaborate masks worn by some of the characters. The most famous of Khon performance is the Ramakien, Thailand’s version of the Indian epic Ramayana. Up until the 19th century, khon was solely performed by men who also played women’s roles. But by the mid 1800s, men and women both took to the stage with masks that denote virtuous and evil characters. Colours too are important as each hue represents a virtue: Phra Ram (the hero) would be in green, Phra Lak (Ram’s brother) wears gold, and the monkey god Hanuman wears white.

GETTING THERE AirAsia flies to Bangkok and other cities in Thailand from various destinations. Go to www.airasia.com for details. 

Note: The research on these dances is derived from various studies published online, and is presented as is while studies on them continue. Travel 3Sixty is not liable for any misrepresentations or misunderstandings on the history of any of the above stated dances.