As a vibrant country with a rich cultural history and heritage, Bhutan celebrates numerous social and religious festivals across the year. A core component of almost every festival is the dance component, which involves stunning performances from ordinary citizens, monks, or both. Varying by occasion and location, these dances infuse life into the events and make for an incredible experience. Here are some of the folk dances of Bhutan –
● Cham Dance – Considered to be the most important and famous of all Bhutanese dances, the Cham dance is practiced especially during the religious festival of Tshechu. Accompanied by a basic musical beat, the dance involves a lively masked performance where the dancers enact moral vignettes, or scenes from the life of Saint Padmasambhava, the most revered Buddhist master of the country. Considered as a token of tribute to the Buddhist saints and a form of meditation, the dance is believed to bring good karma to all who witness it.
● Zhungdra – Infused with the folk music arising in the 17th century, Zhungdra is a royal dance which nevertheless gives greater focus to music. Involving complex vocal tones accompanying simple instrumentals, the dancers, who are always women, move slowly in coordination as they sing. Since the dance and music are considered an offering and token of respect to the king or deity, sudden movements and dramatic flairs are avoided. Instead, the music remains the focus, and the slow movements add to the melodious quality of the experience.
● Archery Dancing – Yes, the national sport of Bhutan invokes much excitement, not just amongst the audience, but the participants as well. With long roots in the country, archery competitions played in
Bhutan to date not just require excellent skills with the bow, but also participation in ritual dances and singing that accompany competitions. Participants or teams may also have their own sets of dedicated dancers, who not only encourage their champion, but also try and distract opponents. Thus, both the sport and dance combine to create a lively social event.
● Drametse Nga Cham – The most beloved form of masked dance in the country, the Drametse Nga Cham involves dancers keeping with the beat that they themselves produce through drums. Orginating from the small village of Drametse in Eastern Bhutan, the dance requires a complex blend of musical, dance, and rhythmic skills, all of which is made harder by the ornate masks worn by performers. It is thus no wonder that this dance often enthralls its audience.
● Boedra – Yet another form of royal dance performed especially in courtrooms and in the presence of royalty, Boedra initially contained only music, which the dance steps included later on. Like Zhungdra, the aim here is grace rather than drama or liveliment, and the performance contains circles of men and women, or individual circles of the genders, who move in time to the music. The steps are not fixed, and therefore the audience does not know what may come next. A good performance thus depends on the coordination between individuals and their combined sense of music.
● Dance of the Black Hats – Retelling the story of the assassination of the anti-Buddhist Tibetan king Langdrama, by the Buddhist monk Pelkyi Dorje, the dance involves participants wearing the epynomous black hats, representing tantrics imbibed with superpowers who cleanse the dancing ground of evil spirts with their footwork. The dance represents the triumph of the participants over evil. Like many other dances, the dance of the black hats is accompanied by a drum.
● Joenpa Legso – Known also as the ‘welcome dance’, this short and simple dance is performed to mark the beginning of an event, to bid respect to the guest of honour, and help bring luck and blessings to whatever the event may be.
● Joenpa Legso is often complemented by the Tashi Tashi, or the farewell dance that marks the close of the event. It expresses thanks and hopes for future meetings, and those present as audience may also be invited to participate.
Both the welcome and farewell dances indicate how important dance is to the culture of Bhutan, not just in the context of religion, but also as a social activity, facilitator and celebration.