Traditions in Foreign Bodies: Harmony of Standardized Thai Dance and Paiwan Songs

Author: Thachaporn Supparatanapinyo (IMCCI)

The third Tjimur Arts Festival organized by the Tjimur Dance Theater gathered a number of performing arts, visual arts, and handicraft workshops for a two-week event. The festival provided a platform for the local community and artists from domestic and international countries to connect and to exchange their cultures in Pintung County, Taiwan. This year the festival was organized under the name “Her Breath” inspired by the past experience of Ljuzem Madiljin, the director of Tjimur Dance Theater. The breath is not only an air that brings one to life but also the symbol of the hardship of a woman in a patriarchal society where she has been suffocated. The festival gave a spotlight to women’s perspective along with traditions, memories, experiences that shape her life. Even though the pandemic led to the cancellation of many international exhibitions, Tjimur Arts Festival can still breathe and live on with the collaboration between the local and international artists who are in Taiwan. In my opinion, the “Her Breath” theme correlated with the outbreak crisis since the breath refers to both vitality and respiration. The respiratory pandemic strangles the art world by blocking several channels for art to survive. When schools, museums, and galleries aboard are closed, the festival offered it a platform to exist. Moreover, the event breathed a new life into traditions and memories from foreign lands to continue in transnational bodies and spaces.
In the festival, I had an opportunity to conduct a Standardized Thai Dance workshop with the support from the University Social Responsibility Project (USR Project) conducted by the Ministry of Education of Taiwan (MOE.) The USR project is under the name “Hi-Five Plus: International Art Platform—Indigenous Peoples from the Plains of Beitou to the Mountains of Pingtung” led by Prof. I-Wen Chang, under the course “Art Festival Practice.” Since the project aims to connect students with the local communities and to sustain the long-term development of the cultural industries in Taiwan, the Thai Dance workshop focused on the cultures sharing and preservation. I and my Thai friend, Waranthip Singhakarn, conducted “泰泰跳舞” (Thai Thai Dance), a Thai folk dance workshop in which we taught participants Standardized Thai Dance (รำวงมาตรฐาน .) Similar to a joke in my country where people will sarcastically call something fabricated and out of an international standard “Thai Thai” such as Thai Thai democracy, the workshop’s name plays with the irony of an invented identity assigned by Thai governments. Through the non-Thai bodies practicing the Thai dance, this dance workshop questions the authenticity of our identities. To place the traditional Thai dance in the seemingly borderless world, we let the participants sing their traditional Paiwan songs while practicing the Thai dance to provide a platform for us to imagine and construct our identities. As Paiwan’s songs rang in the air, Thai and non-Thai participants dancing in the Thai dance pattern indicate that customs and traditions nowadays can continue in foreign bodies, memories, and lands.
Background of Standardized Thai Dance 
Standardized Thai Dance was developed as a part of the promotion of Thai Nationalism led by Field Marshall Pleak’s government from 1938 to 1944. Traditionally, it was a partner dance in which people dance with their partner in a big circle. The circle normally consists of many couples because the dance patterns and songs were designed to unite Thais and to ease the tension during World War II. The dance also aims to create a shared identity; therefore, the dance which is in the four-step dance form is easy to learn despite the different background. The songs for the dance narrate Thai traditional values that the government tried to indoctrinate Thai people. Standardized Thai Dance has long been assigned as a required subject in the educational policy to prolong the so-called Thai identity. Thus, Thai bodies have embedded this fabricated history through the dance for generations. 
泰泰跳舞 (Thai-Thai Dance) Workshop Details
The workshop was divided into four parts: introduction, Standardized Thai Dance teaching, dance exchange session, and Q&A session. Firstly, we introduced the participant to the background of Standardized Thai Dance and illustrated basic Thai dance vocabularies such as I, you, and love. As an ice- breaking session, the participants could communicate with one another using the learned basic gestures. Secondly, we taught them two Standardized Thai Dance songs along with the footsteps and hand movements (Photo 1 and 2) 
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Photo 1 and 2: I and Waranthip Singhakarn Teaching Standardized Thai Dance 
(Credit: Tjimur Arts Festival Facebook Page)

Thirdly, the participants could propose their Paiwan songs to dance with the Thai dance moves and steps. Lastly, we opened the Q&A sessions which eventually turned to be a discussion regarding cultures, identities, and bodies that are cultivated through dance. 

Distinguish Apparent Similarities in Standardized Thai Dance and Paiwan Traditional Dance 
Outside schools that are under the state control, foreign bodies performing traditional dances deconstruct the assigned identity and unveil in what way the officials subvert cultural diversity in the name of its preservation. Due to the similarities of the Thai dance and their traditional dance that is also the four-step simple dance, the workshop participants from Sandimen Township community could follow and imitate the Thai  dances in less than half an hour (Photo 3.)

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Photo 3: 泰泰跳舞 Workshop
(Credit: Tjimur Arts Festival Facebook Page)
Even though our bodies can automatically dance to four-step songs, the learning processes of the dance in Thailand and Sandimen Township are utterly different. When it is mandatory for Thai people to learn Standardized Thai dance in schools, the local participants grew up learning to sing and to dance to the traditional songs in their rituals. Standardized Thai Dance practices and preservation are enforced by the Thai government, therefore; the processes are well-structured and are mainly for political purposes. Feeling forced to learn the Thai dance in school, some despise the dance and perceive it as an old-fashion social practice. When Standardized Thai Dance merely exist in educational institutions, not in people's daily life, some local dance gradually disappears because it does not belong to the Thai dance's standard.
On the other hand, Paiwan traditional dance is practiced in their quotidian life as both ritual practices and as an entertainment. Unlike the Standardized Thai Dance that will continue in schools,  Madiljin revealed that she was jealous of Thai cultural preservation because the Paiwan community has been suffering to safeguard their traditions. In 1976, the first effort to preserve indigenous cultures from the state was the enforcement of the cultural policy focusing on tourist consumption . The training of traditional and newly invented aboriginal dance was subsidized for commercial purposes. The state intervention monopolizes and undermines cultural diversity, especially indigenous customs. On the other hand, the director stated that assigning indigenous dance in the national education policy will not benefit their community. She anticipated that Paiwan traditions will be overlooked and will never exist in the policy. Since Paiwan tribe is not the biggest tribe in the country in terms of population and land possession, the next generations will learn how to practice other tribes' dance, at the same time, will forget their traditional etiquette and custom. 

Traditional Dance in Non-Traditional Bodies
While Thai and Paiwan bodies moved in the same rhythm and song, both indicate different results from the state suppressions: assimilation and liberation. Thai bodies are the evidence of the state’s attempt to implant their invented identity into Thai people. While Thai bodies perform Thai dance with the Paiwan songs, they revisited the life-long brainwashing lessons and retold the stories through the dance. The assimilation cannot be reversed because the bodies have already stored Standardized Thai Dance in the memory. Before our consciousness could process the meaning of the unfamiliar songs, our bodies that are trapped in the state’s doctrine automatically followed the Thai dance steps and recited the life-long suppression. At the same time, Thai people gradually forget the local dance and distance themselves from it because it only exists in the brain, not in the bodies. We are a performer of the constructed identity but are an audience of our heritage. 
However, the Thai bodies that are the proof of suppression liberate themselves from the state control as they forgot the lyrics of Thai-ness. Lyrics of Standardized Thai Dance narrate the ideal qualities of Thai citizens in World War II period when Thai citizens should love and protect their nation in certain ways. When Thai women should support their husbands in the war by being a patient beautiful girl who handles housework, men should be a patriotic warrior who is willing to sacrifice himself for the country. Since we were trained to begin and change footsteps and hand patterns accordingly to the words in the songs, our bodies and brains memorize and prolong these qualities every time we dance. Nevertheless, Paiwan songs in the workshop provided our brains a blank canvas to create our new identity and meanings of the dance. As a Thai who has limited knowledge regarding Paiwan language and rituals, their songs are easy rhythms that our trained bodies can follow but have no meaning. Since our bodies moved faster then the brains, the mind could freely enjoy the movement that flowed with no memory of the state propaganda. The bodies that are accustomed to move accordingly to the word grasped meaningless lyrics and let the brains assign new meanings to each voice and movement. While the past was narrated through the body movement, the future of transnational mixed cultures was anticipated. After several trials with Paiwan songs, Standardized Thai Dance was free from the state intervention and became a new mold for Thais who wished to seek new identities and to resist against the authorities. 
On the other hand, the participants from Paiwan community prolong their traditions through Thai dance indicating the liberation from any authority forces. While their bodily memories facilitate them to new four-step dance, they assert the color of their traditional training in the Thai dance. One of the local participants revealed that his body did not perfectly follow the Thai dance patterns because it automatically sprang into Paiwan dance patterns hearing Paiwan songs. Their bodies which have long practiced local dance reminisce their training through the Thai dance. Standardized Thai Dance in the workshop could represent the invented traditions that the officials force on indigenous communities. Although the state intervention and Thai dance diminished the space for Paiwan customs, they urged the community to cherish and preserve Paiwan traditions. 
Opposite to Standardized Thai Dance that was reborn in new bodies and space in the festival, Thai dance in school struggles to live on. When the coronavirus pandemic keeps accelerating, the dance practices in Thai schools are canceled due to the lockdown. All classes have to be moved to online platforms. Students who used to practice the dance with their partners and teachers now have to learn from the videos and presentations. I think this festival implies the possibility or even the necessity of cultural diaspora. If there is no vaccine or proper solutions for pandemic soon, customs that require physical contact might only survive in the foreign lands that are clear from the disease. In the festival, there were more people who are not Thai learned to actually practice Standardized Thai Dance in Taiwan than in my hometown. Not only was the Thai constructed identity debunked but also the belief in identity that requires racial and geographical qualities. 

As the Paiwan songs harmonized with the Thai dance, the international festival and bodies continue spirits of Thai and the local customs. The workshop outcome suggested that the identity and cultural meanings require the combination of past struggle and newly found freedom. With long-term training of Standardized Thai Dance, Thai bodies are able to instantly connect to Paiwan traditional songs. With suppression from the former government that forced Paiwan community to treasure their heritage, their bodies mimic the foreign dance with the hint of their custom. These double articulations from the bodies decenter cultural practices from the state to the individuals and local communities. In order for the traditions to gain their breath again, the international festival is one of the directions to return arts back to the local and liberate them from the officials’ manacle.